THE GOLDEN SCARECROW
"THE DUCHESS OF WREXE," "FORTITUDE," "THE PRELUDE TO ADVENTURE," "THE WOODEN HORSE." ETC.
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
CHAPTER PAGE PROLOGUE—HUGH SEYMOUR 11 I. HENRY FITZGEORGE STRETHER 43 II. ERNEST HENRY 65 III. ANGELINA 94 IV. BIM ROCHESTER 121 V. NANCY ROSS 146 VI. 'ENERY 172 VII. BARBARA FLINT 198 VIII. SARAH TREFUSIS 226 IX. YOUNG JOHN SCARLET 256 EPILOGUE 274
When Hugh Seymour was nine years of age he was sent from Ceylon, where his parents lived, to be educated in England. His relations having, for the most part, settled in foreign countries, he spent his holidays as a very minute and pale-faced "paying guest" in various houses where other children were of more importance than he, or where children as a race were of no importance at all. It was in this way that he became during certain months of 1889 and 1890 and '91 a resident in the family of the Rev. William Lasher, Vicar of Clinton St. Mary, that large rambling village on the edge of Roche St. Mary Moor in South Glebeshire.
He spent there the two Christmases of 1890 and 1891 (when he was ten and eleven years of age), and it is with the second of these that the following incident, and indeed the whole of this book, has to do. Hugh Seymour could not, at the period of which I write, be called an attractive child; he was not even "interesting" or "unusual." He was very minutely made, with bones so brittle that it seemed that, at any moment, he might crack and splinter into sharp little pieces; and I am afraid that no one would have minded very greatly had this occurred. But although, he was so thin his face had a white and overhanging appearance, his cheeks being pale and puffy and his under-lip jutted forward in front of projecting teeth—he was known as the "White Rabbit" by his schoolfellows. He was not, however, so ugly as this appearance would apparently convey, for his large, grey eyes, soft and even, at times agreeably humorous, were pleasant and cheerful.
During these years when he knew Mr. Lasher he was undoubtedly unfortunate. He was shortsighted, but no one had, as yet, discovered this, and he was, therefore, blamed for much clumsiness that he could not prevent and for a good deal of sensitiveness that came quite simply from his eagerness to do what he was told and his inability to see his way to do it. He was not, at this time, easy with strangers and seemed to them both conceited and awkward. Conceit was far from him—he was, in fact, amazed at so feeble a creature as himself!—but awkward he was, and very often greedy, selfish, impetuous, untruthful and even cruel: he was nearly always dirty, and attributed this to the evil wishes of some malign fairy who flung mud upon him, dropped him into puddles and covered him with ink simply for the fun of the thing!
He did not, at this time, care very greatly for reading; he told himself stories—long stories with enormous families in them, trains of elephants, ropes and ropes of pearls, towers of ivory, peacocks, and strange meals of saffron buns, roast chicken, and gingerbread. His active, everyday concern, however, was to become a sportsman; he wished to be the best cricketer, the best footballer, the fastest runner of his school, and he had not—even then faintly he knew it—the remotest chance of doing any of these things even moderately well. He was bullied at school until his appointment as his dormitory's story-teller gave him a certain status, but his efforts at cricket and football were mocked with jeers and insults. He could not throw a cricket-ball, he could not see to catch one after it was thrown to him, did he try to kick a football he missed it, and when he had run for five minutes he saw purple skies and silver stars and has cramp in his legs. He had, however, during these years at Mr. Lasher's, this great over mastering ambition.
In his sleep, at any rate, he was a hero; in the wide-awake world he was, in the opinion of almost every one, a fool. He was exactly the type of boy whom the Rev. William Lasher could least easily understand. Mr. Lasher was tall and thin (his knees often cracked with a terrifying noise), blue-black about the cheeks hooked as to the nose, bald and shining as to the head, genial as to the manner, and practical to the shining tips of his fingers. He has not, at Cambridge, obtained a rowing blue, but "had it not been for a most unfortunate attack of scarlet fever——-" He was President of the Clinton St. Mary Cricket Club, 1890 (matches played, six; lost, five; drawn, one) knew how to slash the ball across the net at a tennis garden party, always read the prayers in church as though he were imploring God to keep a straighter bat and improve His cut to leg, and had a passion for knocking nails into walls, screwing locks into doors, and making chicken runs. He was, he often thanked his stars, a practical Realist, and his wife, who was fat, stupid, and in a state of perpetual wonder, used to say of him, "If Will hadn't been a clergyman he would have made such an engineer. If God had blessed us with a boy, I'm sure he would have been something scientific. Will's no dreamer." Mr. Lasher was kindly of heart so long as you allowed him to maintain that the world was made for one type of humanity only. He was as breezy as a west wind, loved to bathe in the garden pond on Christmas Day ("had to break the ice that morning"), and at penny readings at the village schoolroom would read extracts from "Pickwick," and would laugh so heartily himself that he would have to stop and wipe his eyes. "If you must read novels," he would say, "read Dickens. Nothing to offend the youngest among us—fine breezy stuff with an optimism that does you good and people you get to know and be fond of. By Jove, I can still cry over Little Nell and am not ashamed of it."
He had the heartiest contempt for "wasters" and "failures," and he was afraid there were a great many in the world. "Give me a man who is a man," he would say, "a man who can hit a ball for six, run ten miles before breakfast and take his knocks with the best of them. Wasn't it Browning who said,
"'God's in His heaven, All's right with the world.'
Browning was a great teacher—after Tennyson, one of our greatest. Where are such men to-day!"
He was, therefore, in spite of his love for outdoor pursuits, a cultured man.
It was natural, perhaps, that he should find Hugh Seymour "a pity." Nearly everything that he said about Hugh Seymour began with the words——
"It's a pity that——"
"It's a pity that you can't get some red into your cheeks, my boy."
"It's a pity you don't care about porridge. You must learn to like it."
"It's a pity you can't even make a little progress with your mathematics."
"It's a pity you told me a lie because——"
"It's a pity you were rude to Mrs. Lasher. No gentleman——"
"It's a pity you weren't attending when——"
Mr. Lasher was, very earnestly, determined to do his best for the boy, and, as he said, "You see, Hugh, if we do our best for you, you must do your best for us. Now I can't, I'm afraid, call this your best."
Hugh would have liked to say that it was the best that he could do in that particular direction (very probably Euclid), but if only he might be allowed to try his hand in quite another direction, he might do something very fine indeed. He never, of course, had a chance of saying this, nor would such a declaration have greatly benefited him, because, for Mr. Lasher, there was only one way for every one and the sooner (if you were a small boy) you followed it the better.
"Don't dream, Hugh," said Mr. Lasher, "remember that no man ever did good-work by dreaming. The goal is to the strong. Remember that."
Hugh, did remember it and would have liked very much to be as strong as possible, but whenever he tried feats of strength he failed and looked foolish.
"My dear boy, that's not the way to do it," said Mr. Lasher; "it's a pity that you don't listen to what I tell you."
A very remarkable fact about Mr. Lasher was this—that he paid no attention whatever to the county in which he lived. Now there are certain counties in England where it is possible to say, "I am in England," and to leave it at that; their quality is simply English with no more individual personality. But Glebeshire has such an individuality, whether for good or evil, that it forces comment from the most sluggish and inattentive of human beings. Mr. Lasher was perhaps the only soul, living or dead, who succeeded in living in it during forty years (he is still there, he is a Canon now in Polchester) and never saying anything about it. When on his visits to London people inquired his opinion of Glebeshire, he would say: "Ah well!... I'm afraid Methodism and intemperance are very strong ... all the same, we're fighting 'em, fighting 'em!"
This was the more remarkable in that Mr. Lasher lived upon the very edge of Roche St. Mary Moor, a stretch of moor and sand. Roche St. Mary Moor, that runs to the sea, contains the ruins of St. Arthe Church (buried until lately in the sand, but recently excavated through the kind generosity of Sir John Porthcullis, of Borhaze, and shown to visitors, 6d. a head, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons free), and in one of the most romantic, mist-laden, moon-silvered, tempest-driven spots in the whole of Great Britain.
The road that ran from Clinton St. Mary to Borhaze across the moor was certainly a wild, rambling, beautiful affair, and when the sea-mists swept across it and the wind carried the cry of the Bell of Trezent Rock in and out above and below, you had a strange and moving experience. Mr. Lasher was certainly compelled to ride on his bicycle from Clinton St. Mary to Borhaze and back again, and never thought it either strange or moving. "Only ten at the Bible meeting to-night. Borhaze wants waking up. We'll see what open-air services can do." What the moor thought about Mr. Lasher it is impossible to know!
Hugh Seymour thought about the moor continually, but he was afraid to mention his ideas of it in public. There was a legend in the village that several hundred years ago some pirates, driven by storm into Borhaze, found their way on to the moor and, caught by the mist, perished there; they are to be seen, says the village, in powdered wigs, red coats, gold lace, and swords, haunting the sand-dunes. God help the poor soul who may fall into their hands! This was a very pleasant story, and Hugh Seymour's thoughts often crept around and about it. He would like to find a pirate, to bring him to the vicarage, and present him to Mr. Lasher. He knew that Mrs. Lasher would say, "Fancy, a pirate. Well! now, fancy! Well, here's a pirate!" And that Mr. Lasher would say, "It's a pity, Hugh, that you don't choose your company more carefully. Look at the man's nose!"
Hugh, although he was only eleven, knew this. Hugh did on one occasion mention the pirates. "Dreaming again, Hugh! Pity they fill your head with such nonsense! If they read their Bibles more!"
Nevertheless, Hugh continued his dreaming. He dreamt of the moor, of the pirates, of the cobbled street in Borhaze, of the cry of the Trezent Bell, of the deep lanes and the smell of the flowers in them, of making five hundred not out at cricket, of doing a problem in Euclid to Mr. Lasher's satisfaction, of having a collar at the end of the week as clean as it had been at the beginning, of discovering the way to make a straight parting in the hair, of not wriggling in bed when Mrs. Lasher kissed him at night, of many, many other things.
He was at this time a very lonely boy. Until Mr. Pidgen paid his visit he was most remarkably lonely. After that visit he was never lonely again.
Mr. Pidgen came on a visit to the vicarage three days before Christmas. Hugh Seymour saw him first from the garden. Mr. Pidgen was standing at the window of Mr. Lasher's study; he was staring in front of him at the sheets of light that flashed and darkened and flashed again across the lawn, at the green cluster of holly-berries by the drive-gate, at the few flakes of snow that fell, lazily, carelessly, as though they were trying to decide whether they would make a grand affair of it or not, and perhaps at the small, grubby boy who was looking at him with one eye and trying to learn the Collect for the day (it was Sunday) with the other. Hugh had never before seen any one in the least like Mr. Pidgen. He was short and round, and his head was covered with tight little curls. His cheeks were chubby and red and his nose small, his mouth also very small. He had no chin. He was wearing a bright blue velvet waistcoat with brass buttons, and over his black shoes there shone white spats.
Hugh had never seen white spats before. Mr. Pidgen shone with cleanliness, and he had supremely the air of having been exactly as he was, all in one piece, years ago. He was like one of the china ornaments in Mrs. Lasher's drawing-room that the housemaid is told to be so careful about, and concerning whose destruction Hugh heard her on at least one occasion declaring, in a voice half tears, half defiance, "Please, ma'am, it wasn't me. It just slipped of itself!" Mr. Pidgen would break very completely were he dropped.
The first thing about him that struck Hugh was his amazing difference from Mr. Lasher. It seemed strange that any two people so different could be in the same house. Mr. Lasher never gleamed or shone, he would not break with however violent an action you dropped him, he would certainly never wear white spats.
Hugh liked Mr. Pidgen at once. They spoke for the first time at the mid-day meal, when Mr. Lasher said, "More Yorkshire pudding, Pidgen?" and Mr. Pidgen said, "I adore it."
Now Yorkshire pudding happened to be one of Hugh's special passions just then, particularly when it was very brown and crinkly, so he said quite spontaneously and without taking thought, as he was always told to do,
"So do I!"
"My dear Hugh!" said Mrs. Lasher; "how very greedy! Fancy! After all you've been told! Well, well! Manners, manners!"
"I don't know," said Mr. Pidgen (his mouth was full). "I said it first, and I'm older than he is. I should know better.... I like boys to be greedy, it's a good sign—a good sign. Besides. Sunday—after a sermon—one naturally feels a bit peckish. Good enough sermon, Lasher, but a bit long."
Mr. Lasher of course did not like this, and, indeed, it was evident to any one (even to a small boy) that the two gentlemen would have different opinions upon every possible subject. However, Hugh loved Mr. Pidgen there and then, and decided that he would put him into the story then running (appearing in nightly numbers from the moment of his departure to bed to the instant of slumber—say ten minutes); he would also, in the imaginary cricket matches that he worked out on paper, give Mr. Pidgen an innings of two hundred not out and make him captain of Kent. He now observed the vision very carefully and discovered several strange items in his general behaviour. Mr. Pidgen was fond of whistling and humming to himself; he was restless and would walk up and down a room with his head in the air and his hands behind his broad back, humming (out of tune) "Sally in our Alley," or "Drink to me only." Of course this amazed Mr. Lasher.
He would quite suddenly stop, stand like a top spinning, balanced on his toes, and cry, "Ah! Now I've got it! No, I haven't! Yes, I have. By God, it's gone again!"
To this also Mr. Lasher strongly objected, and Hugh heard him say, "Really, Pidgen, think of the boy! Think of the boy!" and Mr. Pidgen exclaimed, "By God, so I should!... Beg pardon, Lasher! Won't do it again! Lord save me, I'm a careless old drunkard!" He had any number of strange phrases that were new and brilliant and exciting to the boy, who listened to him. He would say, "by the martyrs of Ephesus!" or "Sunshine and thunder!" or "God stir your slumbers!" when he thought any one very stupid. He said this last one day to Mrs. Lasher, and of course she was very much astonished. She did not from the first like him at all. Mr. Pidgen and Mr. Lasher had been friends at Cambridge and had not met one another since, and every one knows that that is a dangerous basis for the renewal of friendship. They had a little dispute on the very afternoon of Mr. Pidgen's arrival, when Mr. Lasher asked his guest whether he played golf.
"God preserve my soul! No!" said Mr. Pidgen. Mr. Lasher then explained that playing golf made one thin, hungry and self-restrained. Mr. Pidgen said that he did not wish to be the first or last of these, and that he was always the second, and that golf was turning the fair places of England into troughs for the moneyed pigs of the Stock Exchange to swill in.
"My dear Pidgen!" cried Mr. Lasher, "I'm afraid no one could call me a moneyed pig with any justice—more's the pity—and a game of golf to me is——"
"Ah! you're a parson, Lasher," said his guest.
In fact, by the evening of the second day of the visit it was obvious that Clinton St. Mary Vicarage might, very possibly, witness a disturbed Christmas. It was all very tiresome for poor Mrs. Lasher. On the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, Hugh heard the stormy conversation that follows—a conversation that altered the colour and texture of his after-life as such things may, when one is still a child.
Christmas Eve was always, to Hugh, a day with glamour. He did not any longer hang up his stocking (although he would greatly have liked to do so), but, all day, his heart beat thickly at the thought of the morrow, at the thought of something more than the giving and receiving of presents, something more than the eating of food, something more than singing hymns that were delightfully familiar, something more than putting holly over the pictures and hanging mistletoe on to the lamp in the hall. Something there was in the day like going home, like meeting people again whom one had loved once, and not seen for many years, something as warm and romantic and lightly coloured and as comforting as the most inspired and impossible story that one could ever, lying in bed and waiting for sleep, invent.
To-day there was no snow but a frost, and there was a long bar of saffron below the cold sky and a round red ball of a sun. Hugh was sitting in a corner of Mr. Lasher's study, looking at Dor's "Don Quixote," when the two gentlemen came in. He was sitting in a dark corner and they, because they were angry with one another, did not recognise any one except themselves. Mr. Lasher pulled furiously at his pipe and Mr. Pidgen stood up by the fire with his short fat legs spread wide and his mouth smiling, but his eyes vexed and rather indignant.
"My dear Pidgen," said Mr. Lasher, "you misunderstand me, you do indeed! It may be (I would be the first to admit that, like most men, I have my weakness) that I lay too much stress upon the healthy, physical, normal life, upon seeing things as they are and not as one would like to see them to be. I don't believe that dreaming ever did any good to any man!"
"It's only produced some of the finest literature the world has ever known," said Mr. Pidgen.
"Ah! Genius! If you or I were geniuses, Pidgen, that would be another affair. But we're not; we're plain, common-place humdrum human beings with souls to be saved and work to do—work to do!"
There was a little pause after that, and Hugh, looking at Mr. Pidgen, saw the hurt look in his eyes deepen.
"Come now, Lasher," he said at last. "Let's be honest one with another; that's your line, and you say it ought to be mine. Come now, as man to man, you think me a damnable failure now—beg pardon—complete failure—don't you? Don't be afraid of hurting me. I want to know!"
Mr. Lasher was really a kindly man, and when his eyes beheld things—there were of course many things that they never beheld—he would do his best to help anybody. He wanted to help Mr. Pidgen now; but he was also a truthful man.
"My dear Pidgen! Ha, ha! What a question! I'm sure many, many people enjoy your books immensely. I'm sure they do, oh, yes!"
"Come, now, Lasher, the truth. You won't hurt my feelings. If you were discussing me with a third person you'd say, wouldn't you? 'Ah, poor Pidgen might have done something if he hadn't let his fancy run away with him. I was with him at Cambridge. He promised well, but I'm afraid one must admit that he's failed—he would never stick to anything.'"
Now this was so exactly what Mr. Lasher had, on several occasions, said about his friend that he was really for the moment at a loss. He pulled at his pipe, looked very grave, and then said:
"My dear Pidgen, you must remember our lives have followed such different courses. I can only give you my point of view. I don't myself care greatly for romances—fairy tales and so on. It seems to me that for a grown-up man.... However, I don't pretend to be a literary fellow; I have other work, other duties, picturesque, but nevertheless necessary."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Pidgen, who, considering that he had invited his host's honest opinion, should not have become irritated because he had obtained it; "that's just it. You people all think only you know what is necessary. Why shouldn't a fairy story be as necessary as a sermon? A lot more necessary, I dare say. You think you're the only people who can know anything about it. You people never use your imaginations."
"Nevertheless," said Mr. Lasher, very bitterly (for he had always said, "If one does not bring one's imagination into one's work one's work is of no value"), "writers of idle tales are not the only people who use their imaginations. And, if you will allow me, without offence, to say so, Pidgen, your books, even amongst other things of the same sort, have not been the most successful."
This remark seemed to pour water upon all the anger in Mr. Pidgen's heart. His eyes expressed scorn, but not now for Mr. Lasher—for himself. His whole figure drooped and was bowed like a robin in a thunderstorm.
"That's true enough. Bless my soul, Lasher, that's true enough. They hardly sell at all. I've written a dozen of them now, 'The Blue Pouncet Box,' 'The Three-tailed Griffin,' 'The Tree without any Branches,' but you won't want to be bothered with the names of them. 'The Griffin' went into two editions, but it was only because the pictures were rather sentimental. I've often said to myself, 'If a thing doesn't sell in these days it must be good,' but I've not really convinced myself. I'd like them to have sold. Always, until now, I've had hopes of the next one, and thought that it would turn out better, like a woman with her babies. I seem to have given up expecting that now. It isn't, you know, being always hard-up that I mind so much, although that, mind you, isn't pleasant, no, by Jehoshaphat, it isn't. But we would like now and again to find that other people have enjoyed what one hoped they would enjoy. But I don't know, they always seem too old for children and too young for grown-ups—my stories, I mean."
It was one of the hardest traits in Mr. Lasher's character, as Hugh well realised, "to rub it in" over a fallen foe. He considered this his duty; it was also, I am afraid, a pleasure. "It's a pity," he said, "that things should not have gone better; but there are so many writers to-day that I wonder any one writes at all. We live in a practical, realistic age. The leaders amongst us have decided that every man must gird his loins and go out to fight his battles with real weapons in a real cause, not sit dreaming at his windows looking down upon the busy market-place." (Mr. Lasher loved what he called "images." There were many in his sermons.) "But, my dear Pidgen, it is in no way too late. Give up your fairy stories now that they have been proved a failure."
Here Mr. Pidgen, in the most astonishing way, was suddenly in a terrible temper. "They're not!" he almost screamed. "Not at all. Failures, from the worldly point of view, yes; but there are some who understand. I would not have done anything else if I could. You, Lasher, with your soup-tickets and your choir-treats, think there's no room for me and my fairy stories. I tell you, you may find yourself jolly well mistaken one of these days. Yes, by Csar, you may. How do you know what's best worth doing? If you'd listened a little more to the things you were told when you were a baby, you'd be a more intelligent man now."
"When I was a baby," said Mr. Lasher, incredulously, as though that were a thing that he never possibly could have been, "my dear Pidgen!"
"Ah, you think it absurd," said the other, a little cooler again. "But how do you know who watched over your early years and wanted you to be a dreamy, fairy tale kind of person instead of the cayenne pepper sort of man you are. There's always some one there, I tell you, and you can have your choice, whether you'll believe more than you see all your life or less than you see. Every baby knows about it; then, as they grow older, it fades and, with many people, goes altogether. He's never left me, St. Christopher, you know, and that's one thing. Of course, the ideal thing is somewhere between the two; recognise St. Christopher and see the real world as well. I'm afraid neither you nor I is the ideal man, Lasher. Why, I tell you, any baby of three knows more than you do! You're proud of never seeing beyond your nose. I'm proud of never seeing my nose at all: we're both wrong. But I am ready to admit your uses. You never will admit mine; and it isn't any use your denying my Friend. He stayed with you a bit when you just arrived, but I expect he soon left you. You're jolly glad he did."
"My dear Pidgen," said Mr. Lasher, "I haven't understood a word."
Pidgen shook his head. "You're right. That's just what's the matter with me. I can't even put what I see plainly." He sighed deeply. "I've failed. There's no doubt about it. But, although I know that, I've had a happy life. That's the funny part of it. I've enjoyed it more than you ever will, Lasher. At least, I'm never lonely. I like my food, too, and one's head's always full of jolly ideas, if only they seemed jolly to other people."
"Upon my word, Pidgen," said Mr. Lasher. At this moment Mrs. Lasher opened the door.
"Well, well. Fancy! Sitting over the fire talking! Oh, you men! Tea! tea! Tea, Will! Fancy talking all the afternoon! Well!"
No one had noticed Hugh. He, however, had understood Mr. Pidgen better than Mr. Lasher did.
This conversation aroused in Hugh, for various reasons, the greatest possible excitement. He would have liked to have asked Mr. Pidgen many questions. Christmas Day came, and a beautiful day enthroned it: a pale blue sky, faint and clear, was a background to misty little clouds that hovered, then fled and disappeared, and from these flakes of snow fell now and then across the shining sunlight. Early in the winter afternoon a moon like an orange feather sailed into the sky as the lower stretches of blue changed into saffron and gold. Trees and hills and woods were crystal-clear, and shone with an intensity of outline as though their shapes had been cut by some giant knife against the background. Although there was no wind the air was so expectant that the ringing of church bells and the echo of voices came as though across still water. The colour of the sunlight was caught in the cups and runnels of the stiff frozen roads and a horse's hoofs echoed, sharp and ringing, over fields and hedges. The ponds were silvered into a sheet of ice, so thin that the water showed dark beneath it. All the trees were rimmed with hoar-frost.
On Christmas afternoon, when three o'clock had just struck from the church tower, Hugh and Mr. Pidgen met, as though by some conspirator's agreement, by the garden gate. They had said nothing to one another and yet there they were; they both glanced anxiously back at the house and then Mr. Pidgen said:
"Suppose we take a walk."
"Thank you very much," said Hugh. "Tea isn't till half-past four."
"Very well, then, suppose you lead the way." They walked a little, and then Hugh said: "I was there yesterday, in the study, when you talked all that about your books, and everything." The words came from him in little breathless gusts because he was excited.
Mr. Pidgen stopped and looked upon him. "Thunder and sunshine! You don't say so! What under heaven were you doing?"
"I was reading, and you came in and then I was interested."
Hugh dropped his voice.
"I understood all that you meant. I'd like to read your books if I may. We haven't any in the house."
"Bless my soul! Here's some one wants to read my books!" Mr. Pidgen was undoubtedly pleased. "I'll send you some. I'll send you them all!"
Hugh gasped with pleasure. "I'll read them all, however many there are!" he said excitedly. "Every word."
"Well," said Mr. Pidgen, "that's more than any one else has ever done."
"I'd rather be with you," said the boy very confidently, "than Mr. Lasher. I'd rather write stories than preach sermons that no one wants to listen to." Then more timidly he continued: "I know what you meant about the man who comes when you're a baby. I remember him quite well, but I never can say anything because they'd say I was silly. Sometimes I think he's still hanging round only he doesn't come to the vicarage much. He doesn't like Mr. Lasher much, I expect. But I do remember him. He had a beard and I used to think it funny the nurse didn't see him. That was before we went to Ceylon, you know, we used to live in Polchester then. When it was nearly dark and not quite he'd be there. I forgot about him in Ceylon, but since I've been here I've wondered ... it's sometimes like some one whispering to you and you know if you turn round he won't be there, but he is there all the same. I made twenty-five last summer against Porthington Grammar; they're not much good really, and it was our second eleven, and I was nearly out second ball; anyway I made twenty-five, and afterwards as I was ragging about I suddenly thought of him. I know he was pleased. If it had been a little darker I believe I'd have seen him. And then last night, after I was in bed and was thinking about what you'd said I know he was near the window, only I didn't look lest he should go away. But of course Mr. Lasher would say that's all rot, like the pirates, only I know it isn't." Hugh broke off for lack of breath, nothing else would have stopped him. When he was encouraged he was a terrible talker. He suddenly added in a sharp little voice like the report from a pistol: "So one can't be lonely or anything, can one, if there's always some one about?"
Mr. Pidgen was greatly touched. He put his hand upon Hugh's shoulder. "My dear boy," he said, "my dear boy—dear me, dear me. I'm afraid you're going to have a dreadful time when you grow up. I really mustn't encourage you. And yet, who can help himself?"
"But you said yourself that you'd seen him, that you knew him quite well?"
"And so I do—and so I do. But you'll find, as you grow older, there are many people who won't believe you. And there's this, too. The more you live in your head, dreaming and seeing things that aren't there, the less you'll see the things that are there. You'll always be tumbling over things. You'll never get on. You'll never be a success."
"Never mind," said Hugh, "it doesn't matter much what you say now, you're only talking 'for my good' like Mr. Lasher. I don't care, I heard what you said yesterday, and it's made all the difference. I'll come and stay with you."
"Well, so you shall," said Mr. Pidgen. "I can't help it. You shall come as often as you like. Upon my soul, I'm younger to-day than I've felt for a long time. We'll go to the pantomime together if you aren't too old for it. I'll manage to ruin you all right. What's that shining?" He pointed in front of him.
They had come to a rise in the Polwint Road. To their right, running to the very foot of their path, was the moor. It stretched away, like a cloud, vague and indeterminate to the horizon. To their left a dark brown field rose in an ascending wave to a ridge that cut the sky, now crocus-coloured. The field was lit with the soft light of the setting sun. On the ridge of the field something, suspended, it seemed, in midair, was shining like a golden fire.
"What's that?" said Mr. Pidgen again. "It's hanging. What the devil!"
They stopped for a moment, then started across the field. When they had gone a little way Mr. Pidgen paused again.
"It's like a man with a golden helmet. He's got legs, he's coming to us."
They walked on again. Then Hugh cried, "Why, it's only an old Scarecrow. We might have guessed."
The sun, at that instant, sank behind the hills and the world was grey.
The Scarecrow, perched on the high ridge, waved its tattered sleeves in the air. It was an old tin can that had caught the light; the can hanging over the stake that supported it in drunken fashion seemed to wink at them. The shadows came streaming up from the sea and the dark woods below in the hollow drew closer to them.
The Scarecrow seemed to lament the departure of the light. "Here, mind," he said to the two of them, "you saw me in my glory just now and don't you forget it. I may be a knight in shining armour after all. It only depends upon the point of view."
"So it does," said Mr. Pidgen, taking his hat off, "you were very fine, I shan't forget."
They stood there in silence for a time....
At last they turned back and walked slowly home, the intimacy of their new friendship growing with their silence. Hugh was happier than he had ever been before. Behind the quiet evening light he saw wonderful prospects, a new life in which he might dream as he pleased, a new friend to whom he might tell these dreams, a new confidence in his own power....
But it was not to be.
That very night Mr. Pidgen died, very peacefully, in his sleep, from heart failure. He had had, as he had himself said, a happy life.
Years passed and Hugh Seymour grew up. I do not wish here to say much more about him. It happened that when he was twenty-four his work compelled him to live in that Square in London known as March Square (it will be very carefully described in a minute). Here he lived for five years, and, during that time, he was happy enough to gain the intimacy and confidence of some of the children who played in the Gardens there. They trusted him and told him more than they told many people. He had never forgotten Mr. Pidgen; that walk, that vision of the Scarecrow, stood, as such childish things will, for a landmark in his history. He came to believe that those experiences that he knew, in his own life, to be true, were true also for some others. That's as it may be. I can only say that Barbara and Angelina, Bim and even Sarah Trefusis were his friends. I daresay his theory is all wrong.
I can only say that I know that they were his friends; perhaps, after all, the Scarecrow is shining somewhere in golden armour. Perhaps, after all, one need not be so lonely as one often fancies that one is.
HENRY FITZGEORGE STRETHER
March Square is not very far from Hyde Park Corner in London Town. Behind the whir and rattle of the traffic it stands, spacious and cool and very old, muffled by the little streets that guard it, happily unconscious, you would suppose, that there were any in all the world so unfortunate as to have less than five thousand a year for their support. Perhaps a hundred years ago March Square might boast of such superior ignorance, but fashions change, to prevent, it may be, our own too easily irritated monotonies, and, for some time now, the Square has been compelled, here, there, in one corner and another, to admit the invader. It is true that the solemn, respectable grey house, No. 3, can boast that it is the town residence of His Grace the Duke of Crole and his beautiful young Duchess, ne Miss Jane Tunster of New York City, but it is also true that No. —— is in the possession of Mr. Munty Ross of Potted Shrimp fame, and there are Dr. Cruthen, the Misses Dent, Herbert Hoskins and his wife, whose incomes are certainly nearer to 500 than 5,000. Yes, rents and blue blood have come down in March Square; it is, certainly, not the less interesting for that, but——
Some of the houses can boast the days of good Queen Anne for their period. There is one, at the very corner where Somers Street turns off towards the Park, that was built only yesterday, and has about it some air of shame, a furtive embarrassment that it will lose very speedily. There is no house that can claim beauty, and yet the Square, as a whole, has a fine charm, something that age and colour, haphazard adventure, space and quiet have all helped towards.
There is, perhaps, no square in London that clings so tenaciously to any sign or symbol of old London that motor-cars and the increase of speed have not utterly destroyed. All the oldest London mendicants find their way, at different hours of the week, up and down the Square. There is, I believe, no other square in London where musicians are permitted. On Monday morning there is the blind man with the black patch over one eye; he has an organ (a very old one, with a painted picture of the Battle of Trafalgar on the front of it) and he wears an old black skull-cap. He wheezes out his old tunes (they are older than other tunes that March Square hears, and so, perhaps, March Square loves them). He goes despondently, and the tap of his stick sounds all the way round the Square. A small and dirty boy—his grandson, maybe—pushes the organ for him. On Tuesday there comes the remnants of a German band—remnants because now there are only the cornet, the flute and the trumpet. Sadly wind-blown, drunken and diseased they are, and the Square can remember when there were a number of them, hale and hearty young fellows, but drink and competition have been too strong for them. On Wednesdays there is sometimes a lady who sings ballads in a voice that can only be described as that contradiction in terms "a shrill contralto." Her notes are very piercing and can be heard from one end of the Square to the other. She sings "Annie Laurie" and "Robin Adair," and wears a battered hat of black straw. On Thursday there is a handsome Italian with a barrel organ that bears in its belly the very latest and most popular tunes. It is on Thursday that the Square learns the music of the moment; thus from one end of the year to the other does it keep pace with the movement.
On Fridays there is a lean and ragged man wearing large and, to the children of the Square, terrifying spectacles. He is a very gloomy fellow and sings hymn-tunes, "Rock of Ages," "There is a Happy Land," and "Jerusalem the Golden." On Saturdays there is a stout, happy little man with a harp. He has white hair and looks like a retired colonel. He cannot play the harp very much, but he is quite the most popular visitor of the week, and must be very rich indeed does he receive in other squares so handsome a reward for his melody as this one bestows; he is known as "Colonel Harry." In and out of these regular visitors there are, of course, many others. There is a dark, sinister man with a harmonium and a shivering monkey on a chain; there is an Italian woman, wearing bright wraps round her head, and she has a cage of birds who tell fortunes; there is a horsey, stable-bred, ferret-like man with, two performing dogs, and there is quite an old lady in a black bonnet and shawl who sings duets with her grand-daughter, a young thing of some fifty summers.
There can be nothing in the world more charming than the way the Square receives its friends. Let it number amongst its guests a Duchess, that is no reason why it should scorn "Colonel Harry" or "Mouldy Jim," the singer of hymns. Scorn, indeed, cannot be found within its grey walls, soft grey, soft green, soft white and blue—in these colours is the Square's body clothed, no anger in its mild eyes, nor contempt anywhere at its heart.
The Square is proud, and is proud with reason, of its garden. It is not a large garden as London gardens go. It has in its centre a fountain. Neptune, with a fine wreath of seaweed about his middle, blowing water through, his conch. There are two statues, the one of a general who fought in the Indian Mutiny and afterwards lived and died in the Square, the other of a mid-Victorian philanthropist whose stout figure and urbane self-satisfaction (as portrayed by the sculptor) bear witness to an easy conscience and an unimaginative mind. There is, round and about the fountain, a lovely green lawn, and there are many overhanging trees and shady corners. An air of peace the garden breathes, and that although children are for ever racing up and down it, shattering the stillness of the air with their cries, rivalling the bells of St. Matthew's round the corner with their piercing notes.
But it is the quality of the Square that nothing can take from it its peace, nothing temper its tranquillity. In the heat of the days motor-cars will rattle through, bells will ring, all the bustle of a frantic world invade its security; for a moment it submits, but in the evening hour, when the colours are being washed from the sky, and the moon, apricot-tinted, is rising slowly through the smoke, March Square sinks, with a little sigh, back into her peace again. The modern world has not yet touched her, nor ever shall.
The Duchess of Crole had three months ago a son, Henry Fitzgeorge, Marquis of Strether. Very fortunate that the first-born should be a son, very fortunate also that the first-born should be one of the healthiest, liveliest, merriest babies that it has ever been any one's good fortune to encounter. All smiles, chuckles and amiability is Henry Fitzgeorge; he is determined that all shall be well.
His birth was for a little time the sensation of the Square. Every one knew the beautiful Duchess; they had seen her drive, they had seen her walk, they had seen her in the picture-papers, at race-meetings and coming away from fashionable weddings. The word went round day by day as to his health; he was watched when he came out in his perambulator, and there was gossip as to his appearance and behaviour.
"A jolly little fellow."
"Just like his father."
"Rather early to say that, isn't it?"
"Well, I don't know, got the same smile. His mother's rather languid."
"Beautiful woman, though."
Upon a certain afternoon in March about four o'clock, there was quite a gathering of persons in Henry Fitzgeorge's nursery. There was his mother, with those two great friends of hers, Lady Emily Blanchard and the Hon. Mrs. Vavasour; there was Her Grace's mother, Mrs. P. Tunster (an enormously stout lady); there was Miss Helen Crasper, who was staying in the house. These people were gathered at the end of the cot, and they looked down upon Henry Fitzgeorge, and he lay upon his back, gazed at them thoughtfully, and clenched and unclenched his fat hands.
Opposite his cot were some very wide windows, and three windows were filled with galleons of cloud—fat, bolster, swelling vessels, white, save where, in their curving sails, they had caught a faint radiance from the hidden sun. In fine procession, against the blue, they passed along. Very faint and muffled there came up from the Square the lingering notes of "Robin Adair." This is a Wednesday afternoon, and it is the lady with the black straw hat who is singing. The nursery has white walls—it is filled with colour; the fire blazes with a yellow-red gleam that rises and falls across the shining floor.
"I brought him a rattle, Jane, dear," said Mrs. Tunster, shaking in the air a thing of coral and silver. "He's got several, of course, but I guess you'll go a long way before you find anything cuter."
"It's too pretty," said Lady Emily.
"Too lovely," said the Hon. Mrs. Vavasour.
The Duchess looked down upon her son. "Isn't he old?" she said. "Thousands of years. You'd think he was laughing at the lot of us."
Mrs. Tunster shook her head. "Now don't you go imagining things, Jane, my dear. I used to be just like that, and your father would say, 'Now, Alice.'"
Her Grace raised her head. Her eyes were a little tired. She looked from her son to the clouds, and then back again to her son. She was remembering her own early days, the rich glowing colour of her own American country, the freedom, the space, the honesty.
"I guess you're tired, dear," said her mother. "With the party to-night and all. Why don't you go and rest a bit?"
"His eyes are old! He does despise us all."
Lady Emily, who believed in personal comfort and as little thinking as possible, put her arm through her friend's.
"Come along and give us some tea. He's a dear. Good-bye, you little darling. He is a pet. There, did you see him smiling? You darling. Tea I must have, Jane, dear—at once."
"You go on. I'm coming. Ring for it. Tell Hunter. I'll be with you in two minutes, mother."
Mrs. Tunster left her rattle in the nurse's hands. Then, with the two others, departed. Outside the nursery door she said in an American whisper:—"Jane isn't quite right yet. Went about a bit too soon. She's headstrong. She always has been. Doesn't do for her to think too much."
Her Grace was alone now with her son and heir and the nurse. She bent over the cot and smiled upon Henry Fitzgeorge; he smiled back at her, and even gave an absent-minded crow; but his gaze almost instantly swung back again to the window, through which, deeply and with solemn absorption, he watched the clouds.
She gave him her hand, and he closed his fingers about one of hers; but even that grasp was abstracted, as though he were not thinking of her at all, but was simply behaving like a gentleman.
"I don't believe he's realised me a bit, nurse," she said, turning away from the cot.
"Well, Your Grace, they always take time. It's early days."
"But what's he thinking of all the time?"
"Oh, just nothing, Your Grace."
"I don't believe it's nothing. He's trying to settle things. This—what it's all about—what he's got to do about it."
"It may be so, Your Grace. All babies are like that at first."
"His eyes are so old, so grave."
"He's a jolly little fellow, Your Grace."
"He's very little trouble, isn't he?"
"Less trouble than any baby I've ever had to do with. Got His Grace's happy temperament, if I may say so."
"Yes," the mother laughed. She crossed over to the window and looked down. "That poor woman singing down there. How awful! He'll be going down to Crole very shortly, Roberts. Splendid air for him there. But the Square's cheerful. He likes the garden, doesn't he?"
"Oh, yes, Your Grace; all the children and the fountain. But he's a happy baby. I should say he'd like anything."
For a moment longer she looked down into the Square. The discordant voice was giving "Annie Laurie" to the world.
"Good-bye, darling." She stepped forward, shook the silver and coral rattle. "See what grannie's given you!" She left it lying near his hand, and, with a little sigh, was gone.
Now, as the sun was setting, the clouds had broken into little pink bubbles, lying idly here and there upon the sky. Higher, near the top of the window, they were large pink cushions, three fat ones, lying sedately against the blue. During three months now Henry Fitzgeorge Strether had been confronted with the new scene, the new urgency on his part to respond to it. At first he had refused absolutely to make any response; behind him, around him, above him, below him, were still the old conditions; but they were the old conditions viewed, for some reason unknown to him, at a distance, and at a distance that was ever increasing. With every day something here in this new and preposterous world struck his attention, and with every fresh lure was he drawn more certainly from his old consciousness. At first he had simply rebelled; then, very slowly, his curiosity had begun to stir. It had stirred at first through food and touch; very pleasant this, very pleasant that.
Milk, sleep, light things that he could hold very tightly with his hands. Now, upon this March afternoon, he watched the pink clouds with a more intent gaze than he had given to them before. Their colour and shape bore some reference to the life that he had left. They were "like" a little to those other things. There, too, shadowed against the wall, was his Friend, his Friend, now the last link with everything that he knew.
At first, during the first week, he had demanded again and again to be taken back, and always he had been told to wait, to wait and see what was going to happen. So long as his Friend was there, he knew that he was not completely abandoned, and that this was only a temporary business, with its strange limiting circumstances, the way that one was tied and bound, the embarrassment of finding that all one's old means of communication were here useless. How desperate, indeed, would it have been had his Friend not been there, reassuring pervading him, surrounding him, always subduing those sudden inexplicable alarms.
He would demand: "When are we going to leave all this?"
"Wait. I know it seems absurd to you, but it's commanded you."
"Well, but—this is ridiculous. Where are all my old powers I Where are all the others?"
"You will understand everything one day. I'm afraid you're very uncomfortable. You will be less so as time passes. Indeed, very soon you will be very happy."
"Well, I'm doing my best to be cheerful. But you won't leave me?"
"Not so long as you want me."
"You'll stay until we go back again!"
"You'll never go back again."
Across the light the nurse advanced. She took him in her arms for a moment, turned his pillows, then layed him down again. As he settled down into comfort he saw his Friend, huge, a great shadow, mingling with the coloured lights of the flaming sky. All the world was lit, the white room glowed. A pleasant smell was in his nostrils.
"Where are all the others? They would like to share this pleasant moment, and I would warn them about the unpleasant ones."
"They are coming, some of them. I am with them as I am with you." Swinging across the Square were the evening bells of St. Matthew's.
Henry Fitzgeorge smiled, then chuckled, then dozed into a pleasant sleep.
Asleep, awake, it had been for the most part the same to him. He swung easily, lazily upon the clouds; warmth and light surrounded him; a part of him, his toes, perhaps, would be suddenly cold, then he would cry, or he would strike his head against the side of his cot and it would hurt, and so then he would cry again. But these tears would not be tears of grief, but simply declarations of astonishment and wonder.
He did not, of course, realise that as, very slowly, very gradually he began to understand the terms and conditions of his new life, so with the same gradation, his Friend was expressed in those terms. Slowly that great shadow filled the room, took on human shape, until at last it would be only thus that he would appear. But Henry would not realise the change, soon he would not know that it had ever been otherwise. Dimly, out of chaos, the world was being made for him. There a square of colour, here something round and hard that was cool to touch, now a gleaming rod that ran high into the air, now a shape very soft and warm against which it was pleasant to lean. The clouds, the sweep of dim colour, the vast horizons of that other world yielded, day by day, to little concrete things—a patch of carpet, the leg of a chair, the shadow of the fire, clouds beyond the window, buttons on some one's clothes, the rails of his cot. Then there were voices, the touch of hands, some one's soft hair, some one who sang little songs to him.
He woke early one morning and realised the rattle that his grandmother had given to him. He suddenly realised it. He grasped the handle of it with his hand and found this cool and pleasant to touch. He then, by accident, made it tinkle, and instantly the prettiest noise replied to him. He shook it more lustily and the response was louder. He was, it seemed, master of this charming thing and could force it to do what he wished. He appealed to his Friend. Was not this a charming thing that he had found? He waved it and chuckled and crowed, and then his toes, sticking out beyond the bed-clothes, were nipped by the cold so that he halloed loudly. Perhaps the rattle had nipped his toes. He did not know, but he would cry because that eased his feelings.
That morning there came with his grandmother and mother a silly young woman who had, it was supposed, a great way with babies. "I adore babies," she said. "We understand one another in the most wonderful way."
Henry Fitzgeorge looked at her as she leaned over the cot and made faces at him. "Goo-goo-gum-goo," she cried.
"What is all this?" he asked his Friend. He laid down the rattle, and felt suddenly lonely and unhappy.
"Little pet—ug—la—la—goo—losh!" Henry Fitzgeorge raised his eyes. His Friend was a long, long way away; his eyes grew cold with contempt. He hated this thing that made the noises and closed out the light. He opened his eyes, he was about to burst into one of his most abandoned roars when his stare encountered his mother. Her eyes were watching him, and they had in them a glow and radiance that gave him a warm feeling of companionship. "I know," they seemed to say, "what you are thinking of. I agree with all that you are feeling about her. Only don't cry, she really isn't worth it." His mouth slowly closed then to thank her for her assistance, he raised the rattle and shook it at her. His eyes never left her face.
"Little darling," said the lady friend, but nevertheless disappointed. "Lift him up, Jane. I'd like to see him in your arms."
But she shook her head. She moved away from the cot. Something so precious had been in that smile of her son's that she would not risk any rebuff.
Henry Fitzgeorge gave the strange lady one last look of disgust.
"If that comes again I'll bite it," he said to his Friend.
When these visitors had departed, he lay there remembering those eyes that had looked into his. All that day he remembered them, and it may be that his Friend, as he watched, sighed because the time for launching him had now come, that one more soul had passed from his sheltering arms out into the highroad of fine adventures. How easily they forget! How readily they forget! How eagerly they fling the pack of their old world from off their shoulders! He had seen, perhaps, so many go, thus lustily, upon their way, and then how many, at the end of it all, tired, worn, beaten to their very shadows, had he received at the end!
But it was so. This day was to see Henry Fitzgeorge's assertions of his independence. The hour when this life was to close, so definitely, so securely, the doors upon that other, had come. The shadow that had been so vast that it had filled the room, the Square, the world, was drawn now into small and human size.
Henry Fitzgeorge was never again to look so old.
As the fine, dim afternoon was closing, he was allowed, for half an hour before sleep, to sprawl upon the carpet in front of the fire. He had with him his rattle and a large bear which he stroked because it was comfortable; he had no personal feeling about it.
His mother came in.
"Let me have him for half an hour, nurse. Come back in half an hour's time."
The nurse left them.
Henry Fitzgeorge did not look at his mother.
He had the bear in his arms and was feeling it, and in his mind the warmth from the flickering, jumping flame and the soft, friendly submission of the fur beneath his fingers were part of the same mystery.
His mother had been motoring; her cheeks were flushed, and her dark clothes heightened, by their contrast, her colour. She knelt down on the carpet and then, with her hands folded on her lap, watched her son. He rolled the bear over and over, he poked it, he banged its head upon the ground. Then he was tired with it and took up the rattle. Then he was tired of that, and he looked across at his mother and chuckled.
His mind, however, was not at all concentrated upon her. He felt, on this afternoon, a new, a fresh interest in things. The carpet before him was a vast country and he did not propose to explore it, but sucking his thumb, stroking the bear's coat, feeling the firelight upon his face, he felt that now something would occur. He had realised that there was much to explore and that, after all, perhaps there might be more in this strange condition of things than he had only a little time ago considered possible. It was then that he looked up and saw hanging round his mother's neck a gold chain. This was a long chain hanging right down to her lap; as it hung there, very slowly it swayed from side to side, and as it swayed, the firelight caught it and it gleamed and was splashed with light. His eyes, as he watched, grew rounder and rounder; he had never seen anything so wonderful. He put down the rattle, crawled, with great difficulty because of his long clothes, on to his knees and sat staring, his thumb in his mouth. His mother stayed, watching him. He pointed his finger, crowing. "Come and fetch it," she said.
He tumbled forward on to his nose and then lay there, with his face raised a little, watching it. She did not move at all, but knelt with her hands straight out upon her knees, and the chain with its large gold rings like flaming eyes swung from hand to hand. Then he tried to move forward, his whole soul in his gaze. He would raise a hand towards the treasure and then because that upset his balance he would fall, but at once he would be up again. He moved a little and breathed little gasps of pleasure.
She bent forward to him, his hand was outstretched. His eyes went up and, meeting hers, instantly the chain was forgotten. That recognition that they had given him before was there now.
With a scramble and a lurch, desperate, heedless in its risks, he was in his mother's lap. Then he crowed. He crowed for all the world to hear because now, at last, he had become its citizen.
Was there not then, from some one, disregarded and forgotten at that moment, a sigh, lighter than the air itself, half-ironic, half-wistful regret?
Young Ernest Henry Wilberforce, who had only yesterday achieved his second birthday, watched, with a speculative eye, his nurse. He was seated on the floor with his back to the high window that was flaming now with the light of the dying sun; his nurse was by the fire, her head, shadowed huge and fantastic on the wall, nodded and nodded and nodded. Ernest Henry was, in figure, stocky and square, with a head round, hard, and covered with yellow curls; rather light and cold blue eyes and a chin of no mean degree were further possessions. He was wearing a white blouse, a white skirt, white socks and shoes; his legs were fat and bulged above his socks; his cold blue eyes never moved from his nurse's broad back.
He knew that, in a very short time, disturbance would begin. He knew that doors would open and shut, that there would be movement, strange noises, then an attack upon himself, ultimately a removal of him to another place, a stripping off him of his blouse, his skirt, his socks and his shoes, a loathsome and strangely useless application of soap and water—it was only, of course, in later years that he learned the names of those abominable articles—and, finally, finally darkness. All this he felt hovering very close at hand; one nod too many of his nurse's head, and up she would start, off she would go, off he would go.... He watched her and stroked very softly his warm, fat calf.
It was a fine, spacious room that he inhabited. The ceiling—very, very far away—was white and glimmering with shadowy spaces of gold flung by the sun across the breast of it. The wallpaper was dark-red, and there were many coloured pictures of ships and dogs and snowy Christmases, and swans eating from the hands of beautiful little girls, and one garden with roses and peacocks and a tumbling fountain. To Ernest Henry these were simply splashes of colour, and colour, moreover, scarcely so convincing as the bright blue screen by the fire, or the golden brown rug by the door; but he was dimly aware that, as the days passed, so did he find more and more to consider in the shapes and sizes between the deep black frames.... There might, after all, be something in it.
But it was not the pictures that he was now considering.
Before his nurse's descent upon him he was determined that he would walk—not crawl, but walk in his socks and shoes—from his place by the window to the blue screen by the fire. There had been days, and those not so long ago, when so hazardous an Odyssey had seemed the vainest of Blue Moon ambitions; it had once been the only rule of existence to sprawl and roll and sprawl again; but gradually some further force had stirred his limbs. It was a finer thing to be upright; there was a finer view, a more lordly sense of possession could be summoned to one's command. That, then, once decided, upright one must be and upright, with many sudden and alarming collapses, Ernest Henry was.
He had marked out, from the first, the distance from the wall to the blue screen as a very decent distance. There was, half-way, a large rocking-chair that would be either a danger or a deliverance, as Fate should have it. Save for this, it was, right across the brown, rose-strewn carpet, naked country. Truly a perilous business. As he sat there and looked at it, his heart a little misgave him; in this strange, new world into which he had been so roughly hustled, amongst a horde of alarming and painful occurrences, he had discovered nothing so disconcerting as that sudden giving of the knees, that rising of the floor to meet you, the collapse, the pain, and above all the disgrace. Moreover, let him fail now, and it meant, in short,—banishment—banishment and then darkness. There were risks. It was the most perilous thing that, in this new country, he had yet attempted, but attempt it he would.... He was as obstinate as his chin could make him.
With his blue eyes still cautiously upon his nurse's shadow he raised himself very softly, his fat hand pressed against the wall, his mouth tightly closed, and from between his teeth there issued the most distant relation of that sound that the traditional ostler makes when he is cleaning down a horse. His knees quivered, straightened; he was up. Far away in the long, long distance were piled the toys that yesterday's birthday had given him. They did not, as yet, mean anything to him at all. One day, perhaps when he had torn the dolls limb from limb, twisted the railways until they stood end upon end in sheer horror, disembowelled the bears and golliwogs so that they screamed again, he might have some personal feeling for them. At present there they lay in shining impersonal newness, and there for Ernest Henry they might lie for ever.
For an instant, his hand against the wall, he was straight and motionless; then he took his hand away, and his journey began. At the first movement a strange, an amazing glory filled him. From the instant, two years ago, of his first arrival he had been disturbed by an irritating sense of inadequacy; he had been sent, it seemed, into this new and tiresome condition of things without any fitting provisions for his real needs. Demands were always made upon him that were, in the absurd lack of ways and means, impossible of fulfilment. But now, at last, he was using the world as it should be used.... He was fine, he was free, he was absolutely master. His legs might shake, his body lurch from side to side, his breath come in agitating gasps and whistles; the wall was now far behind him, the screen most wonderfully near, the rocking-chair almost within his grasp. Great and mighty is Ernest Henry Wilberforce, dazzling and again dazzling the lighted avenues opening now before him; there is nothing, nothing, from the rendings of the toys to the deliberate defiance of his nurse and all those in authority over him, that he shall not now perform.... With a cry, with a wild wave of the arms, with a sickening foretaste of the bump with which the gay brown carpet would mark him, he was down, the Fates were upon him—the disturbance, the disrobing, the darkness. Nevertheless, even as he was carried, sobbing, into the farther room, there went with him a consciousness that life would never again be quite the dull, purposeless, monotonous thing that it had hitherto been.
After a long time he was alone. About him the room, save for the yellow night-light above his head, was dark, humped with shadows, with grey pools of light near the windows, and a golden bar that some lamp beyond the house flung upon the wall. Ernest Henry lay and, now and again, cautiously felt the bump on his forehead; there was butter on the bump, and an interesting confusion and pain and importance round and about it. Ernest Henry's eyes sought the golden bar, and then, lingering there, looked back upon the recent adventure. He had walked; yes, he had walked. This would, indeed, be something to tell his Friend.
His friend, he knew, would be very shortly with him. It was not every night that he came, but always, before his coming, Ernest Henry knew of his approach—knew by the happy sense of comfort that stole softly about him, knew by the dismissal of all those fears and shapes and terrors that, otherwise, so easily beset him. He sucked his thumb now, and felt his bump, and stared at the ceiling and knew that he would come. During the first months after Ernest Henry's arrival on this planet his friend was never absent from him at all, was always there, drawing through his fingers the threads of the old happy life and the new alarming one, mingling them so that the transition from the one to the other might not be too sharp—reassuring, comforting, consoling. Then there had been hours when he had withdrawn himself, and that earlier world had grown a little vaguer, a little more remote, and certain things, certain foods and smells and sounds had taken their place within the circle of realised facts. Then it had come to be that the friend only came at night, came at that moment when the nurse had gone, when the room was dark, and the possible beasts—the first beast, the second beast, and the third beast—began to creep amongst those cool, grey shadows in the hollow of the room. He always came then, was there with his arm about Ernest Henry, his great body, his dark beard, his large, firm hands—all so reassuring that the beasts might do the worst, and nothing could come of it. He brought with him, indeed, so much more than himself—brought a whole world of recollected wonders, of all that other time when Ernest Henry had other things to do, other disciplines, other triumphs, other defeats, and other glories. Of late his memory of the other time had been untrustworthy. Things during the day-time would remind him, but would remind him, nevertheless, with a strange mingling of the world at present about him, so that he was not sure of his visions. But when his friend was with him the memories were real enough, and it was the nurse, the fire, the red wallpaper, the smell of toast, the taste of warm milk, that were faint and shadowy.
His friend was there, just as always, suddenly sitting there on the bed with his arm round Ernest Henry's body, his dark beard just tickling Ernest Henry's neck, his hand tight about Ernest Henry's hand. They told one another things in the old way without tiresome words and sounds; but, for the benefit of those who are unfortunately too aged to remember that old and pleasant intercourse, one must make use of the English language. Ernest Henry displayed his bump, and explained its origin; and then, even as he did so, was aware that the reality of the bump made the other world just a little less real. He was proud that he had walked and stood up, and had been the master of his circumstance; but just because he had done so he was aware that his friend was a little, a very little farther away to-night than he had ever been before.
"Well, I'm very glad that you're going to stand on your own, because you'll have to. I'm going to leave you now—leave you for longer, far longer than I've ever left you before."
"Yes. I shan't always be with you; indeed, later on you won't want me. Then you'll forget me, and at last you won't even believe that I ever existed—until, at the end of it all, I come to take you away. Then it will all come back to you."
"Oh, but that's absurd!" Ernest Henry said confidently. Nevertheless, in his heart he knew that, during the day-time, other things did more and more compel his attention. There were long stretches during the day-time now when he forgot his friend.
"After your second birthday I always leave you more to yourselves. I shall go now for quite a time, and you'll see that when the old feeling comes, and you know that I'm coming back, you'll be quite startled and surprised that you'd got on so well without me. Of course, some of you want me more than others do, and with some of you I stay quite late in life. There are one or two I never leave at all. But you're not like that; you'll get on quite well without me."
"Oh, no, I shan't," said Ernest Henry, and he clung very tightly and was most affectionate. But he suddenly put his fingers to his bump, felt the butter, and his chin shot up with self-satisfaction.
"To-morrow I'll get ever so much farther," he said.
"You'll behave, and not mind the beasts or the creatures?" his friend said. "You must remember that it's not the slightest use to call for me. You're on your own. Think of me, though. Don't forget me altogether. And don't forget all the other world in your new discoveries. Look out of the window sometimes. That will remind you more than anything."
He had kissed him, had put his hand for a moment on Ernest Henry's curls, and was gone. Ernest Henry, his thumb in his mouth, was fast asleep.
Suddenly, with a wild, agonising clutch at the heart, he was awake. He was up in bed, his hands, clammy and hot, pressed together, his eyes staring, his mouth dry. The yellow night-light was there, the bars of gold upon the walls, the cool, grey shadows, the white square of the window; but there, surely, also, were the beasts. He knew that they were there—one crouching right away there in the shadow, all black, damp; one crawling, blacker and damper, across the floor; one—yes, beyond question—one, the blackest and cruellest of them all, there beneath the bed. The bed seemed to heave, the room flamed with terror. He thought of his friend; on other nights he had invoked him, and instantly there had been assurance and comfort. Now that was of no avail; his friend would not come. He was utterly alone. Panic drove him; he thought that there, on the farther side of the bed, claws and a black arm appeared. He screamed and screamed and screamed.
The door was flung open, there were lights, his nurse appeared. He was lying down now, his face towards the wall, and only dry, hard little sobs came from him. Her large red hand was upon his shoulder, but brought no comfort with it. Of what use was she against the three beasts? A poor creature.... He was ashamed that he should cry before her. He bit his lip.
"Dreaming, I suppose, sir," she said to some one behind her. Another figure came forward. Some one sat down on the edge of the bed, put his arm round Ernest Henry's body and drew him towards him. For one wild moment Ernest Henry fancied that his friend had, after all, returned. But no. He knew that these were the conditions of this world, not of that other. When he crept close to his friend he was caught up into a soft, rosy comfort, was conscious of nothing except ease and rest. Here there were knobs and hard little buttons, and at first his head was pressed against a cold, slippery surface that hurt. Nevertheless, the pressure was pleasant and comforting. A warm hand stroked his hair. He liked it, jerked his head up, and hit his new friend's chin.
"Oh, damn!" he heard quite clearly. This was a new sound to Ernest Henry; but just now he was interested in sounds, and had learnt lately quite a number. This was a soft, pleasant, easy sound. He liked it.
And so, with it echoing in his head, his curly head against his father's shoulder, the bump glistening in the candle-light, the beasts defeated and derided, he tumbled into sleep.
A pleasant sight at breakfast was Ernest Henry, with his yellow curls gleaming from his bath, his bib tied firmly under his determined chin, his fat fingers clutching a large spoon, his body barricaded into a high chair, his heels swinging and kicking and swinging again. Very fine, too, was the nursery on a sunny morning—the fire crackling, the roses on the brown carpet as lively as though they were real, and the whole place glittering, glowing with size and cleanliness and vigour. In the air was the crackling smell of toast and bacon, in a glass dish was strawberry jam, through the half-open window came all the fun of the Square—the sparrows, the carts, the motor-cars, the bells, and horses.... Oh, a fine morning was fine indeed!
Ernest Henry, deep in the business of conveying securely his bread and milk from the bowl—a beautiful bowl with red robins all round the outside of it—to his mouth, laughed at the three beasts. Let them show themselves here in the sunlight, and they'd see what they'd get. Let them only dare!
He surveyed, with pleased anticipation, the probable progress of his day. He glanced at the pile of toys in the farther corner of the room, and thought to himself that he might, after all, find some diversion there. Yesterday they had seemed disappointing; to-day in the glow of the sun they suggested, adventure. Then he looked towards that stretch of country—that wall-to-screen marathon—and, with an eye upon his nurse, meditated a further attempt. He put down his spoon, and felt his bump. It was better; perchance there would be two bumps by the evening. And then, suddenly, he remembered.... He felt again the terror, saw the lights and his nurse, then that new friend.... He pondered, lifted his spoon, waved it in the air; and then smiling with the happy recovery of a pleasant, friendly sound, repeated half to himself, half to his nurse: "Damn! Damn! Damn!"
That began for him the difficulties of his day. He was hustled, shaken; words, words, words were poured down upon him. He understood that, in some strange, unexpected, bewildering fashion he had done wrong. There was nothing more puzzling in his present surroundings than that amazingly sudden transition from serenity to danger. Here one was, warm with food, bathed in sunlight, with a fine, ripe day in front of one.... Then the mere murmur of a sound, and all was tragedy.
He hated his toys, his nurse, his food, his world; he sat in a corner of the room and glowered.... How was he to know? If, under direct encouragement, he could be induced to say "dada," or "horse," or "twain," he received nothing but applause and, often enough, reward. Yet, let him make use of that pleasant new sound that he had learnt, and he was in disgrace. Upon this day, more than any other in his young life, he ached, he longed for some explanation. Then, sitting there in his corner, there came to him a discovery, the force of which was never, throughout all his later life, to leave him. He had been deserted by his friend. His last link with that other life was broken. He was here, planted in the strangest of strange places, with nothing whatever to help him. He was alone; he must fight for his own hand. He would—from that moment, seated there beneath the window, Ernest Henry Wilberforce challenged the terrors of this world, and found them sawdust—he would say "damn" as often as he pleased. "Damn, damn, damn, damn," he whispered, and marked again, with meditative eye, the space from wall to screen.
After this, greatly cheered, he bethought him of the Square. Last night his friend had said to him that when he wished to think of him, and go back for a time to the other world, a peep into the Square would assist him. He clambered up on to the window-seat, caught behind him those sounds, "Now, Master Ernest," which he now definitely connected with condemnation and disapproval, shook his curls in defiance, and pressed his nose to the glass. The Square was a dazzling sight. He had not as yet names for any of the things that he saw there, nor, when he went out on his magnificent daily progress in his perambulator did he associate the things that he found immediately around him with the things that he saw from his lofty window; but, with every absorbed gaze they stood more securely before him, and were fixed ever more firmly in his memory.
This was a Square with fine, white, lofty houses, and in the houses were an infinite number of windows, sometimes gay and sometimes glittering. In the middle of the Square was a garden, and in the middle of the garden, very clearly visible from Ernest Henry's window, was a fountain. It was this fountain, always tossing and leaping, that gave Ernest Henry the key to his memories. Gazing at it he had no difficulty at all to find himself back in the old life. Even now, although only two years had passed, it was difficult not to reveal his old experiences by means of terms of his new discoveries. He thought, for instance, of the fountain as a door that led into the country whose citizen he had once been, and that country he saw now in terms of doors and passages and rooms and windows, whereas, in reality, it had been quite otherwise.
But now, perched up there on the window-sill, he felt that if he could only bring the fountain in with him out of the Square into his nursery, he would have the key to both existences. He wanted to understand—to understand what was the relation between his friend who had left last night, why he might say "dada," but mustn't say "damn," why, finally, he was here at all. He did not consciously consider these things; his brain was only very slightly, as yet, concerned in his discoveries; but, like a flowing river, beneath his movements and actions, the interplay of his two existences drove him on through, his adventure.
There were, of course, many other things in the Square besides the fountain. There was, at the farther corner, just out of the Square, but quite visible from Ernest Henry's window, a fruit-shop with coloured fruit piled high on the boards outside the windows. Indeed, that side street, of which one could only catch this glimpse, promised to be most wonderful always; when evening came a golden haze hovered round and about it. In the garden itself there were often many children, and for an hour every afternoon Ernest Henry might be found amongst them. There were two statues in the Square—one of a gentleman in a beard and a frock-coat, the other of a soldier riding very finely upon a restless horse; but Ernest Henry was not, as yet, old enough to realise the meaning and importance of these heroes.
Outside the Square there were many dogs, and even now as he looked down from his window he could see a number of them, black and brown and white.
The trees trembled in a little breeze, the fountain flashed in the sun, somewhere a barrel-organ was playing.... Ernest Henry gave a little sigh, of satisfaction.
He was back! He was back! He was slipping, slipping into distance through the window into the street, under the fountain, its glittering arms had caught him; he was up, the door was before him, he had the key.
"Time for you to put your things on, Master Ernest. And 'ow you've dirtied your knees! There! Look!"
He shook himself, clambered down from the window, gave his nurse what she described as "One of his old, old looks. Might be eighty when he's like that.... They're all like it when they're young."
With a sigh he translated himself back into this new, tiresome existence.
But after that morning things were never again quite the same. He gave himself up deliberately to the new life.
With that serious devotion towards anything likely to be of real practical value to him that was, in his later years, never to fail him, he attacked this business of "words." He discovered that if he made certain sounds when certain things were said to him he provoked instant applause. He liked popularity; he liked the rewards that popularity brought him. He acquired a formula that amounted practically to "Wash dat?" And whenever he saw anything new he produced his question. He learnt with amazing rapidity. He was, his nurse repeatedly told his father, "a most remarkable child."
It could not truthfully be said that during these weeks he forgot his friend altogether. There were still the dark hours at night when he longed for him, and once or twice he had cried aloud for him. But slowly that slipped away. He did not look often now at the fountain.
There were times when his friend was almost there. One evening, kneeling on the floor before the fire, arranging shining soldiers in a row, he was aware of something that made him sharply pause and raise his head. He was, for the moment, alone in the room that was glowing and quivering now in the firelight. The faint stir and crackle of the fire, the rich flaming colour that rose and fell against the white ceiling might have been enough to make him wonder. But there was also the scent of a clump of blue hyacinths standing in shadow by the darkened window, and this scent caught him, even as the fountain had caught him, caught him with the stillness, the leaping fire, the twisted sense of romantic splendours that came, like some magician's smoke and flame, up to his very heart and brain. He did not turn his head, but behind him he was sure, there on the golden-brown rug, his friend was standing, watching him with his smiling eyes, his dark beard; he would be ready, at the least movement, to catch him up and hold him. Swiftly, Ernest Henry turned. There was no one there.
But those moments were few now; real people were intervening. He had no mother, and this was doubtless the reason why his nurse darkly addressed him as "Poor Lamb" on many occasions; but he was, of course, at present unaware of his misfortune. He had an aunt, and of this lady he was aware only too vividly. She was long and thin and black, and he would not have disliked her so cordially, perhaps, had he not from the very first been aware of the sharpness of her nose when she kissed him. Her nose hurt him, and so he hated her. But, as he grew, he discovered that this hatred was well-founded. Miss Wilberforce had not a happy way with children; she was nervous when she should have been bold, and secret when she should have been honesty itself. When Ernest Henry was the merest atom in a cradle, he discovered that she was afraid of him; he hated the shiny stuff of her dress. She wore a gold chain that—when you pulled it—snapped and hit your fingers. There were sharp pins at the back of her dress. He hated her; he was not afraid of her, and yet on that critical night when his friend told him of his departure, it was the fear of being left alone with the black cold shiny thing that troubled him most; she bore of all the daylight things the closest resemblance to the three beasts.
There was, of course, his nurse, and a great deal of his time was spent in her company; but she had strangely little connection with his main problem of the relation of this, his present world, to that, his preceding one. She was there to answer questions, to issue commands, to forbid. She had the key to various cupboards—to the cupboard with pretty cups and jam and sugar, to the cupboard with ugly things that tasted horrible, things that he resisted by instinct long before they arrived under his nose. She also had certain sounds, of which she made invariable use on all occasions. One was, "Now, Master Ernest!" Another: "Mind-what-you're-about-now!" And, at his "Wash dat!" always "Oh-bother-the-boy!" She was large and square to look upon, very often pins were in her mouth, and the slippers that she wore within doors often clipclapped upon the carpet. But she was not a person; she had nothing to do with his progress.
The person who had to do with it was, of course, his father. That night when his friend had left him had been, indeed, a crisis, because it was on that night that his father had come to him. It was not that he had not been aware of his father before, but he had been aware of him only as he had been aware of light and heat and food. Now it had become a definite wonder as to whether this new friend had been sent to take the place of the old one. Certainly the new friend had very little to do with all that old life of which the fountain was the door. He belonged, most definitely, to the new one, and everything about him—the delightfully mysterious tick of his gold watch, the solid, firm grasp of his hand, the sure security of his shoulder upon which Ernest Henry now gloriously rode—these things were of this world and none other.
It was a different relationship, this, from any other that Ernest Henry had ever known, but there was no doubt at all about its pleasant flavour. Just as in other days he had watched for his friend's appearance, so now he waited for that evening hour that always brought his father. The door would open, the square, set figure would appear.... Very pleasant, indeed. Meanwhile Ernest Henry was instructed that the right thing to say on his father's appearance was "Dada."
But he knew better. His father's name was really "Damn."
The days and weeks passed. There had been no sign of his friend.... Then the crisis came.
That old wall-to-screen marathon had been achieved, and so contemptuously banished. There was now the great business of marching without aid from one end of the room to the other. This was a long business, and always hitherto somewhere about the middle of it Ernest Henry had sat down suddenly, pretending, even to himself, that his shoe hurt, or that he was bored with the game, and would prefer some other.
There came, then, a beautiful spring evening. The long low evening sun flooded the room, and somewhere a bell was calling Christian people to their prayers, and somewhere else the old man with the harp, who always came round the Square once every week, was making beautiful music.
Ernest Henry's father had taken the nurse's place for an hour, and was reading a Globe with absorbed attention by the window; Mr. Wilberforce, senior, was one of London's most famous barristers, and the Globe on this particular afternoon had a great deal to say about this able man's cleverness. Ernest Henry watched his father, watched the light, heard the bell and the harp, felt that the hour was ripe for his attempt.
He started, and, even as he did so, was aware that, after he had succeeded in this great adventure, things—that is, life—would never be quite the same again. He knew by now every stage of the first half of his journey. The first instalment was defined by that picture of the garden and the roses and the peacocks; the second by the beginning of the square brown nursery table; and here there was always a swift and very testing temptation to cling, with a sticky hand, to the hard and shining corner. The third division was the end of the nursery table where one was again tempted to give the corner a final clutch before passing forth into the void. After this there was nothing, no rest, no possible harbour until the end.
Off Ernest Henry started. He could see his father, there in the long distance, busied with his paper; he could see the nursery table, with bright-blue and red reels of cotton that nurse had left there; he could see a discarded railway engine that lay gaping there half-way across, ready to catch and trip him if he were not careful. His eyes were like saucers, the hissing noise came from between his teeth, his forehead frowned. He passed the peacock, he flung contemptuously aside the proffered corner of the table; he passed, as an Atlantic liner passes the Eddystone, the table's other end; he was on the last stretch.
Then suddenly he paused. He lifted his head, caught with his eye a pink, round cloud that sailed against the evening blue beyond the window, heard the harpist, heard his father turn and exclaim, as he saw him.
He knew, as he stood there, that at last the moment had come. His friend had returned.
All the room was buzzing with it. The dolls fell in a neglected heap, the train on the carpet, the fire behind the fender, the reels of cotton that were on the table—they all knew it.
His friend had returned.
His impulse was, there and then, to sit down.
His friend was whispering: "Come along!... Come along!... Come along!" He knew that, on his surrender, his father would make sounds like, "Well, old man, tired, eh? Bed, I suggest." He knew that bed would follow. Then darkness, then his friend.
For an instant there was fierce battle between the old forces and the new. Then, with his eyes upon his father, resuming that hiss that is proper only to ostlers, he continued his march.
He reached the wall. He caught his father's leg. He was raised on to his father's lap, was kissed, was for a moment triumphant; then suddenly burst into tears.
"Why, old man, what's the matter?"
But Ernest Henry could not explain. Had he but known it he had, in that rejection of his friend, completed the first stage of his "Pilgrimage from this world to the next."
Angelina Braid, on the morning of her third birthday, woke very early. It would be too much to say that she knew it was her birthday, but she awoke, excited. She looked at the glimmering room, heard the sparrows beyond her windows, heard the snoring of her nurse in the large bed opposite her own, and lay very still, with her heart thumping like anything. She made no noise, however, because it was not her way to make a noise. Angelina Braid was the quietest little girl in all the Square. "You'd never meet one nigher a mouse in a week of Sundays," said her nurse, who was a "gay one" and liked life.
It was not, however, entirely Angelina's fault that she took life quietly; in 21 March Square, it was exceedingly difficult to do anything else. Angelina's parents were in India, and she was not conscious, very acutely, of their existence. Every morning and evening she prayed, "God bless mother and father in India," but then she was not very acutely conscious of God either, and so her mind was apt to wander during her prayers.
She lived with her two aunts—Miss Emmy Braid and Miss Violet Braid—in the smallest house in the Square. So slim was No. 21, and so ruthlessly squeezed between the opulent No. 20 and the stout ruddy-faced No. 22, that it made one quite breathless to look at it; it was exactly as though an old maid, driven by suffragette wildness, had been arrested by two of the finest possible policemen, and carried off into custody. Very little of any kind of wildness was there about the Misses Braid. They were slim, neat women, whose rather yellow faces had the flat, squashed look of lawn grass after a garden roller has passed over it. They believed in God according to the Reverend Stephen Hunt, of St. Matthew-in-the-Crescent—the church round the corner—but in no other kind of God whatever. They were not rich, and they were not poor; they went once a week—Fridays—to visit the poor of St. Matthew's, and found the poor of St. Matthew's on the whole unappreciative of their efforts, but that made their task the nobler. Their house was dark and musty, and filled with little articles left them by their grand-parents, their parents, and other defunct relations. They had no friendly feeling towards one another, but missed one another when they were separated. They were, both of them, as strong as horses, but very hypochondriacal, and Dr. Armstrong of Mulberry Place made a very pleasant little income out of them.
I have mentioned them at length, because they had a great deal to do with Angelina's quiet behaviour. No. 21 was not a house that welcomed a child's ringing laughter. But, in any case, the Misses Braid were not fond of children, but only took Angelina because they had a soft spot in their dry hearts for their brother Jim, and in any case it would have been difficult to say no.
Their attitude to children was that they could not understand why they did not instantly see things as they, their elders, saw them; but then, on the other hand, if an especially bright child did take a grown-up point of view about anything that was considered "forward" and "conceited," so that it was really very difficult for Angelina.
"It's a pity Jim's got such a dull child," Miss Violet would say. "You never would have expected it."
"What I like about a child," said Miss Emmy, "is a little cheerfulness and natural spirit—not all this moping."
Angelina was not, on the whole, popular.... The aunts had very little idea of making a house cheerful for a child. The room allotted to Angelina as a nursery was at the top of the house, and had once been a servant's bedroom. It possessed two rather grimy windows, a faded brown wallpaper, an old green carpet, and some very stiff, hard chairs. On one wall was a large map of the world, and on the other an old print of Romans sacking Jerusalem, a picture which frightened Angelina every night of her life, when the dark came and the lamp illuminated the writhing limbs, the falling bodies, the tottering walls. From the windows the Square was visible, and at the windows Angelina spent a great deal of her time, but her present nurse—nurses succeeded one another with startling frequency—objected to what she called "window-gazing." "Makes a child dreamy," she said; "lowers her spirits."
Angelina was, naturally, a dreamy child, and no amount of nurses could prevent her being one. She was dreamy because her loneliness forced her to be so, and if her dreams were the most real part of her day to her that was surely the faults of her aunts. But she was not at all a quick child; although to-day was her third birthday she could not talk very well, could not pronounce her r's, and lisped in what her trail of nurses told her was a ridiculous fashion for so big a girl. But, then, she was not really a big girl; her figure was short and stumpy, her features plain and pale with the pallor of her first Indian year. Her eyes were large and black and rather fine.
On this morning she lay in bed, and knew that she was excited because her friend had come the night before and told her that to-day would be an important day. Angelina clung, with a desperate tenacity, to her memories of everything that happened to her before her arrival on this unpleasant planet. Those memories now were growing faint, and they came to her only in flashes, in sudden twists and turns of the scene, as though she were surrounded by curtains and, every now and then, was allowed a peep through. Her friend had been with her continually at first, and, whilst he had been there, the old life had been real and visible enough; but on her second birthday he had told her that it was right now that she should manage by herself. Since then, he had come when she least expected him; sometimes when she had needed him very badly he had not appeared.... She never knew. At any rate, he had said that to-day would be important.... She lay in bed, listening to her nurse's snores, and waited.
At breakfast she knew that it was her birthday. There were presents from her aunts—a picture-book and a box of pencils—there was also a mysterious parcel. Angelina could not remember that she had ever had a parcel before, and the excitement of this one must be prolonged. She would not open it, but gazed at it, with her spoon in the air and her mouth wide open.
"Come, Miss Angelina—what a name to give the poor lamb!—get on with your breakfast now, or you'll never have done. Why not open the pretty parcel?"
"No. Do you think it is a twain?"
"Say train—not twain."
"No, of course not; not a thing that shape."
"Oh! Do you think it's a bear?"
"Maybe—maybe. Come now, get on with your bread and butter."
"Don't want any more."
"Get down from your chair, then. Say your grace now."
"Thank God nice bweakfast, Amen."
"That's right! Now open it, then."
"No, not now."
"Drat the child! Well, wipe your face, then."
Angelina carried her parcel to the window, and then, after gazing at it for a long time, at last opened it. Her eyes grew wider and wider, her chubby fingers trembled. Nurse undid the wrappings of paper, slowly folded up the sheets, then produced, all naked and unashamed, a large rag doll.
"There! There's a pretty thing for you, Miss 'Lina."
She had her hand about the doll's head, and held her there, suspended.
"Give her me! Give her me!" Angelina rescued her, and, with eyes flaming, the doll laid lengthways in her arms, tottered off to the other corner of the room.
"Well, there's gratitude," said the nurse, "and never asking so much as who it's from."
But nurse, aunts, all the troubles and disappointments of this world had vanished from Angelina's heart and soul. She had seen, at that first glimpse that her nurse had so rudely given her, that here at last, after long, long waiting, was the blessing that she had so desired. She had had other dolls—quite a number of them. Even now Lizzie (without an eye) and Rachel (rather fine in bridesmaid's attire) were leaning their disconsolate backs against the boarding beneath the window seat. There had been, besides Rachel and Lizzie, two Annies, a Mary, a May, a Blackamoor, a Jap, a Sailor, and a Baby in a Bath. They were now as though they had never been; Angelina knew with absolute certainty of soul, with that blending of will and desire, passion, self-sacrifice and absence of humour that must inevitably accompany true love that here was her Fate.
"It's been sent you by your kind Uncle Teny," said nurse. "You'll have to write a nice letter and thank him."