Florence Barclay.

Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Days



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"Christobel," he said, "this is no place for you. Come away at once. Do you hear? I bid you come with me at once."

The only thing she really minded was that his hat was on, in the presence of her Dead.

She could not free her arm from the grip of the Professor.

She turned and pointed to the stretcher, with her left hand.

"My place is here," she said, clearly and deliberately. "I have the right to be here. This is all a fearful nightmare, from which we are bound before long to wake. But meanwhile, I tell you plainly – as I ought to have told you before —this is the body of the man I love."

At that moment, one of the crowd, springing on to the breakwater behind the Professor, struck off his hat with a cane. It fell into the sea.

The Professor let go her arm, and turned to see who had perpetrated the outrage, and whether the hat could be recovered.

Then she bent over the stretcher.

"Boy dear," she whispered, in tones of ineffable tenderness; "this is where they have laid you; but I will take you away."

She put her arms beneath the body; then, with an almost superhuman effort, lifted it, and gathered it to her. It felt limp and broken. The head fell heavily against her breast. The blood and salt-water soaked through her thin muslin blouse. But she held him, and would not let him go. "I will take him away," she whispered; "I will take him away."

She knew she was losing her reason, but she had known that, ever since she first looked down from the top of the cliff, and saw the broken wings floating on the sea. Now, with her Boy in her arms, her one idea was to get away from the Professor; away from the coast-guardsmen; away from the crowd.

Turning her back upon the beach, she staggered along the breakwater, toward the open sea.

"I will take him away," she repeated; "I will take him away."

Then her foot slipped. She still held the Boy, but she felt herself falling.

She closed her eyes.

She never knew which she struck first, the stone breakwater, or the sea —

THE SEVENTH DAY
THE STONE IS ROLLED AWAY

When Christobel recovered consciousness and opened her eyes, she found herself in bed, in her own room, at home.

Martha bent over her.

The morning light entered dimly, through closed curtains.

In dumb anguish of mind, she looked up into Martha's grim old face.

"Tell me where you have laid him," she said, "and I will take him away."

Martha snorted.

"I've laid your tea-tray on the table beside your bed, Miss," she said; "and when you 'ave finished with it, I will take it away."

Whereupon, Martha lumbered to the large bow-window, drew back all the curtains with a vigorous clatter of brass rings, and let in a blaze of morning sunshine.

Christobel lay quite still, trying to collect her thoughts.

One of her pillows was clasped tightly in her arms.

She lifted her left hand, and looked at it.

No ring encircled the third finger.

"Martha," she called, softly.

Martha loomed large at the side of the bed.

"What is to-day?"

"Wednesday, Miss," replied Martha, too much surprised to be contemptuous.

"Martha – where is Mr.

Chelsea?"

"Lord only knows," said Martha, tragically.

"Martha – is he – living?"

"Living?" repeated Martha, deliberately. Then she smiled, her crooked smile. "Living don't express it, Miss Christobel. Lively's more like it, when Mr. Guy is concerned. And I reckon, wherever 'e is, e's makin' things lively somewhere for somebody. You don't look quite the thing this morning, Miss. Sit up and take your tea."

She sat up, loosing the pillow out of her arms – the pillow which had been, first her Little Boy Blue, as she drew him to her in the darkness; then the dead body of Guy Chelsea, as she lifted it on the breakwater.

She took her tea from Martha's hand, and drank it quickly. She wanted Martha to go.

It was Wednesday! Then the Boy had left her only the day before yesterday. His telegram had come last night. The Professor's proposal had not yet reached her.

Martha lifted the tray and departed.

Then Christobel Charteris rose, and stood at her open window, in the morning sunlight. She looked out upon the mulberry-tree and the long vista of soft turf; in the dim distance, the postern gate in the old red wall – his paradise, and hers.

She lifted her beautiful arms above her head. The loose sleeves of her nightdress fell away, baring them to the elbows. She might have stood, in her noble development of face and form, for a splendid statue of hope and praise.

"Ah, dear God!" she breathed, "is it indeed true? Is it possible? Is my Boy alive? And am I free – free to be his alone? Am I free to give him all he wants, free to be all he needs?"

She stood long at the window motionless, realizing the mental adjustment which had come to her during the strenuous hours of the night.

Her dream had taught her one great lesson: That under no circumstances whatever, can it be right for a woman to marry one man, while with her whole being she loves another. Love is Lord of all. Love reigns paramount. No expectations, past or present, based on friendship or gratitude; no sense of duty or obligations of any kind could make a marriage right, if, in view of that marriage, Love had to stand by with broken wings.

She felt quite sure, now, that she could never marry the Professor; and humbly she thanked God for opening her eyes to the wrong she had contemplated, before it was too late.

But there still remained the difficult prospect of having to disappoint a man she esteemed so highly; a man who had been led to believe she cared for him, and had waited years for him; a man who, for years, had set his heart upon her. This was a heavy stone, and it lay right in the path of perfect bliss which she longed to tread with her Little Boy Blue.

Who should roll it away?

Could she feel free to take happiness with the Boy, if she had disappointed and crushed a deeply sensitive nature which trusted her?

She dressed, and went down to the breakfast-room, her soul filled, in spite of perplexities, with a radiance of glad thanksgiving.

Martha and Jenkins came in to prayers. Martha had now taken to curling all her wisps. She appeared with many frizzled ringlets, kept in place by invisible pins.

Martha always came in to prayers, as if she were marching at the head of a long row of men and maids. Jenkins followed meekly, placing his chair at what would have been the tail of Martha's imaginary retinue. According to the triumphant dignity of Martha's entry, Jenkins placed his chair near or far away. Martha was in great form to-day. Jenkins sat almost at the door. If the door-bell rang during prayers, the first ring was tacitly ignored; but if it rang again, Martha signed to Jenkins, who tiptoed reverently out, and answered it. No matter how early in the morning's devotions the interruption occurred, Jenkins never considered it etiquette to return. Miss Charteris used to dread a duet alone with Martha. She always became too intensely conscious of herself and of Martha, to be uplifted as usual by the inspired words of Bible and Prayer-book. The presence of Jenkins at once constituted a congregation.

On this particular morning, no interruptions occurred.

The portion for the day chanced to be the scene at the empty tomb, in the early dawn of that first Easter Day, as given by Saint Mark.

The quiet voice vibrated with unusual emotion as Miss Charteris read:

"And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great."

Christobel Charteris paused. She seemed to see the shore at Dovercourt, and the brave little figure struggling to carry the heavy stone; and, later on when the cannon-ball lay safely in the castle court-yard, Little Boy Blue standing erect, with lifted cap, and shining eyes, a picture of faith triumphant.

"I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."

How far were the happenings of this strange night owing to that dead mother's prayers; and to the Boy's unfailing faith, even through these hard days?

Miss Charteris could read no farther. She closed the Bible. "Let us pray," she said, and turned to the Collect for the week.

"O God, Whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth: We humbly beseech Thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

On the breakfast-table, beside her plate, lay the Professor's letter. She had known it would be there.

She poured out her coffee and buttered her toast.

Then she opened the letter.

"My dear Ann" —

After the nightmare through which she had just passed, this beginning scarcely surprised her. She glanced back at the envelope to make quite sure it was addressed to herself; then read on. It was dated the evening before, from the Professor's rooms in College.

"MY DEAR ANN, – I regret to have been unable to look in upon you this evening, on my return from town, and my duties will keep me from paying you a visit until to-morrow, in the late afternoon. Hence this letter.

"Needless to say, I have been thinking over, carefully, the remarkable statement you saw fit to make to me, concerning the feelings and expectations of our young friend. It came to me as a genuine surprise. I have always looked upon our friendship as purely Platonic; based entirely upon the intellectual enjoyment we found in pursuing our classical studies together.

"I admit, I cannot bring myself to contemplate matrimony with much enthusiasm.

"At the same time, your feeling in the matter being so strong, and my sense of gratitude toward my late friend, a thing never to be forgotten; if you are quite sure, Ann – and I confess it seems to me altogether incredible – that our young friend entertains, toward me, feelings which will mean serious disappointment to her, if I fail – "

This brought the letter to the bottom of the first page.

Without reading any farther, Miss Charteris folded it, and replaced it in the envelope.

The indignant blood had mounted to the roots of her soft fair hair. But already, in her heart, sounded a song of wondering praise.

"And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great."

The iron gate of the front garden swung open. Hurried steps flew up the path. Emma, poor soul, had been told to fly; and Emma had flown. She almost fell into the arms of Jenkins, as he opened the hall door.

The note with which Emma had run, at a speed which was now causing her "such a stitch as never was," came from Miss Ann, and was marked "urgent" and "immediate."

The corners of Christobel's proud mouth curved into a quiet smile as she took it from the salver. She had expected this note.

"Take Emma downstairs, Jenkins," she said. "Ask Martha to give her a cup of coffee, and an egg, if she fancies it. Tell Emma, I wish her to sit down comfortably and rest. The answer to this note will be ready in about half an hour; not before."

Miss Charteris finished her coffee and toast, poured out a fresh cup, and took some marmalade. She did not hurry over her breakfast.

When she had quite finished, she rose, and walked over to the writing-table. She sat down, opened her blotter, took paper and envelopes; found a pen, and tried it.

Then she opened Miss Ann's letter, marked "urgent" and "immediate."

"SWEETEST CHILD" (wrote Miss Ann) – "See what Kenrick has done! We – you and I —so understand his dear absent-minded ways. He wrote this letter to you last night, and, owing to his natural emotion and tension of mind, addressed it to me! Needless to say, I have read only the opening sentences. Darling Christobel, you will, I feel sure, overlook the very natural mistake, and not allow it in any way to affect your answer to my brother's proposal. Remember how difficult it is for great minds to be accurate in the small details of daily life. I have known Kenrick to put two spoonfuls of mustard into a cup of coffee, stir it round, and drink it, quite unaware that anything was wrong – I have indeed! See how our dear Professor needs a wife!

"I feel quite foolishly anxious this morning. Do send me one line of assurance that all is well. You cannot but be touched by my brother's letter. From beginning to end, it breathes the faithful devotion of a lifetime. Do not misunderstand the natural reticence of one wholly unaccustomed to the voicing of sentiment. I only wish you could hear all he says to me!"

Then followed a few prayers and devout allusions to Providence – which brought a stern look to the face of Miss Charteris – and, with a whiff of effusive sentiment, Ann Harvey closed her epistle.

An open letter from the Professor to herself was enclosed; but this, Christobel quietly laid aside.

She took pen and paper, and wrote at once the note for which Emma waited.

"DEAR ANN, – I enclose a letter from your brother which came, addressed to me, this morning, but was evidently intended for you. I have read only the first page, which was quite sufficient to make the true state of affairs perfectly clear to me.

"Providence has indeed interposed, by means of the Professor's absent-minded ways, to prevent the wrecking of three lives – mine, your brother's, and that of the man I love; to whom I shall be betrothed before the day is over.

"I shall not tell the Professor that I have seen a portion of his letter to you. I think we owe it to him not to do so. He has always been a true and honourable friend to me.

"Yours, "C. C."

When Emma had duly departed with this letter and enclosure, Miss Charteris breathed more freely. She had been afraid lest, in her righteous indignation, in her consciousness of the terrible mischief so nearly wrought, she should write too strongly to Miss Ann, thus causing her unnecessary pain.

It was quite impossible, to the fine generosity of a nature such as that of Christobel Charteris, really to understand the mean, self-centred, unscrupulous dishonesty of an action such as this of Miss Ann's. From the calm heights whereon she walked, such small-minded selfishness of motive did not come within her field of vision. She could never bring herself to believe worse of Miss Ann than that, in some incomprehensible way, she had laboured under a delusion regarding herself and the Professor.

Miss Ann disposed of, she turned to the Professor's letter.

It was not the letter of her dream, by any means; nor was it the letter she had sometimes dreamed he would write.

It was straightforward and simple; and, holding the key to the situation, she could read between the lines a certain amount of dismayed surprise, which made her heartily sorry for her old friend.

The Professor touched on their long friendship, his regard for her parents, his sincere admiration for herself; their unity of interests and congeniality of tastes; his sudden change of fortunes; quoted a little Greek, a little Sanskrit, and a little Persian; then, fortified by these familiar aids to the emotions, offered her marriage, in valiant and unmistakable terms.

Christobel's heart stood still as she realized that not one word in that letter would have revealed to her the true state of the case. Truly, under Providence, she had cause to bless the Professor's "dear absent-minded ways."

As she took pen and paper to reply to his letter, her heart felt very warm toward her old friend. She gave him full credit for the effort with which he had done what he had been led to consider was the right thing toward her.

"MY DEAR PROFESSOR" (she wrote), – "I rejoice to hear of your good fortune. It is well indeed when the great thinkers of the world are rendered independent of all anxious taking of thought as to what they shall eat, or what they shall drink, or wherewithal they shall be clothed. I like to think of you, my friend, as now set completely free from all mundane cares; able to give your undivided attention to the work you love.

"I appreciate, more than I can say, the kind proposition concerning myself, which you make in your letter. I owe it to our friendship to tell you quite frankly that I feel, and have long felt, how great an honour it would be for any woman to be in a position so to administer your household as to set you completely free for your great intellectual pursuits.

"But marriage would mean more than this, and our long friendship emboldens me to say that I should grieve to see you – owing perhaps to pressure or advice from others – burden your life with family ties for which you surely do not yourself feel any special inclination.

"And, now, my friend, I must not close my letter without telling you how great a happiness has come into my lonely life. I am about to marry a man whom – " Miss Charteris paused, and looked through the open window to the softly moving leaves of the old mulberry-tree. A gleam of amusement shone in her eyes, curving her lips into a tender smile. The Boy seemed beside her, slapping his knee and rocking with merriment at the way she was about to bewilder Miss Ann and the Professor – "a man whom I have known and loved for over twenty years.

"I am sure you will wish me joy, dear Professor.

"Believe me, always,

"Gratefully and affectionately yours,

"CHRISTOBEL CHARTERIS."

She rang the bell, and sent the answer to the Professor's letter, by Jenkins. She could not wait for the slow medium of the post. She could not let him remain another hour in the belief that, in order to save her from disappointment, he was compelled to marry Christobel Charteris.

She stood at the breakfast-room window, and watched Jenkins as he hurried down the garden with the note. Going by the lane, and taking a short cut across the fields, he would reach the Professor's rooms in a quarter of an hour. Until then, life was somewhat intolerable.

The proud blood mantled again over the face, the strong sweet beauty of which the Boy so loved. Her letter to the Professor had not been easy to write. She had had to be true to herself, and true to him, in the light of what she knew to be his real feeling in the matter; bearing in mind that before long he would almost certainly learn from Miss Ann that she had replied to his proposal after having read his sentiments on the subject, so candidly expressed on the first page of his letter to his sister.

To relieve her mind, after this intricate whirl of cross-correspondence, she took up the Daily Graphic, and opened it, casually turning the pages.

Suddenly there looked out at her from the central page, the merry, handsome, daring face of her own Little Boy Blue. He was seated in his flying-machine steering-wheel in hand, looking out from among many wires. His cap was on the back of his head, his bright eyes looked straight into hers; his firm young lips, parted in a smile, seemed to say; "I jolly well mean to do it!" It was the very picture she had seen in the Professor's Daily Mirror, in her dream of the night before. Below was an account of the flight from Folkestone which he was about to attempt.

Then she remembered, with a shock of realization, that the flight across the Channel, round Boulogne Cathedral and back, was to take place on that very day. His telegram, of the night before, had said: "I am going to do a big fly to-morrow. Wish me luck." Ah, what if it ended as she had seen it end in her dream: great broken wings; a mass of tangled wire; and the Boy —her Boy – with matted hair, and wounded head, asleep beneath the sailcloth!

Her heart stood still.

With their perfect joy so near its fulfilment, she could not let him take the risk. Was there time to stop him?

She looked at the paper. The start was for 2 p.m. It was now eleven o'clock.

She remembered his last words: "When you want me and send – why, I will come from the other end of the world."

She never quite knew how she reached the telegraph-office. It seemed almost as dreamlike as her flight from the top to the bottom of the Folkestone cliffs. But it was not a dream this time; it was desperate reality.

Why do people always break the points of the pencils hanging from strings in the telegraph-offices? Surely it is possible to write a telegram without stubbing off the pencil, and leaving it in that condition, for the next person in a hurry.

She flew from compartment to compartment, and at last produced her own pencil, and wrote her telegram in the final section of the row, independent of official broken points.

"Do not fly to-day. Come to me. I want you.

"Christobel."

She addressed it to the hotel from which he had telegraphed on the previous day; but added to the address: "If not there, send immediately to aviation sheds." She had no idea what to call the places, but this sounded well, and seemed an intuition, or an unconscious recollection of some remark of the Boy's.

She handed it over the counter. "Please see that it goes through at once," she said.

The clerk knew her. "Yes, Miss Charteris," he replied. He began reading the message aloud, but almost immediately stopped, and checked the words off silently. He glanced at the clock. "It should be there before noon, Miss Charteris," he said.



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