Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Days
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"'Little Boy Blue,' I said, 'may I help you to carry your stone?'
"You paused, and looked up at me. I doubt if you had breath to answer while you were walking. Your little face was flushed and damp with exertion; the blue cap was almost off; you had sand on your eyebrows, and sand on your little straight nose. But you looked at me with an expression of indomitable courage and pride, and you said: 'Fanks; but I always does my own cawwying.' With that you started on, and I fell behind – rebuffed!"
"Surly little beast!" ejaculated the Boy.
"Not at all," said the Aunt. "I won't have my Little Boy Blue called names! He showed a fine independence of spirit. Now hear what happened next.
"Little Boy Blue had almost reached his castle, with his somewhat large, but otherwise suitable, cannon-ball, when his nurse, glancing up from her needlework, perceived him staggering along in his shirt-sleeves, and also saw the use to which he was putting his flannel coat. She threw aside the blue over-all she was making, rushed down the shore, calling my Little Boy Blue every uncomplimentary compound noun and adjective which entered her irate and flurried mind; seized the precious stone, unwound the little jacket, flung the stone away, shook out the sand and seaweed, and straightened the twisted sleeves. Then she proceeded to shake the breath out of my Little Boy Blue's already rather breathless little body; put on the coat, jerked him up the shore, and plumped him down with his back to the sea and his castle, to sit in disgrace and listen, while she told the assembled nurses what a 'born himp of hevil' he was! I could have slain that woman! And I knew my little Boy Blue had no dear mother of his own. I wanted to take him in my arms, smooth his tumbled curls, and comfort him. And all this time he had not uttered a sound. He had just explained to me that he always did his own carrying, and evidently he had learned to bear his childish sorrows in silence. I watched the little disconsolate blue back, usually so gaily erect, now round with shame and woe. Then I bethought me of something I could do. I made quite sure he was not peeping round. Then I went and found the chosen stone, and it was heavy indeed! I carried it to the breakwater, and deposited it carefully within the courtyard of the castle. Then I sat down behind the breakwater, on the other side, and waited. I felt sure Little Boy Blue would come back for his spade and bucket.
"Presently the nurses grew tired of bullying him. The strength of his quiet non-resistance proved greater than their superior numbers and brute force. Also his intelligent little presence was, undoubtedly, a check upon their gossip. So he was told he might go; I conclude, on the understanding that he should 'be a good boy' and carry no more 'nasty heavy stones.' I saw him rise and shake the dust of the nurses' circle off his little feet! Then he pushed back his curls, and, without looking to the right or to the left, trotted straight to his castle.I wondered he did not glance, however hopelessly, in the supposed direction of the desired stone. But, no! He came gaily on; and the light of a great expectation shone in his brown eyes.
"When he reached the breakwater, and found his castle, there – safely in the courtyard – reposed the mighty cannon-ball. He stood still a moment, looking at it; and his cheeks went very pink. Then he pulled off his little cap, and turned his radiant face up to the blue sky, flecked with fleeting white clouds. And – 'Fank de Lord,' said my Little Boy Blue."
There were unconcealed tears in the Aunt's kind eyes, and she controlled her quiet voice with difficulty. But the glory of a great gladness had come over the Boy. Without as yet explaining itself in words, it rang in his voice and laughter.
"I remember," he said. "Why, of course I remember! Not you, worse luck; but being lugged up the shore, and fearing I had lost my cannon-ball. And, you know, as quite a tiny chap, I had formed a habit of praying about all my little wants and woes. I sometimes think, how amused the angels must have been when my small petitions arrived. There was a scarecrow, in a field, I prayed for, regularly, every night, for weeks. I had been struck by the fact that it looked lonely. Then I seriously upset the theology of the nursery, by passing through a course of persistent and fervent prayer for Satan. It appeared as an obvious logical conclusion to my infant mind: that if the person who – according to nurse – spent all his time in going about making everybody naughty, could himself become good, all naughtiness would cease. Also, that anybody must be considered as 'past praying for,' was an idea which nearly broke my small heart With rage and misery, when it was first crudely forced upon me. I think the arch-fiend must have turned away, silent and nonplussed, if he ever chanced to pass by, while a very tiny boy was kneeling up in his crib, pleading with tearful earnestness: 'Please God, bless poor old Satan; make him good an' happy; an' take him back to heaven.' But it used to annoy nurse considerably, when she came into the same prayer, with barely a comma between."
"Oh, my Little Boy Blue!" cried the Aunt. "Why was I not your mother!"
"Thank goodness, you were not!" said the Boy, imperturbably. "I don't want you for a mother, dear. I want you for my wife."
"So you had prayed about the stone?" remarked the Aunt, hurriedly.
"Yes. While seated there in disgrace, I said: 'Please God, let an angel find my cannon-ball, which howwid old nurse fwowed away. An' let the angel cawwy it safe to the courtyard of my castle.' And I was not at all surprised to find it there; merely very glad. So you see, Christobel, you were my guardian angel twenty years ago. No wonder I feel I have known and loved you, all my life."
"Wait until you hear the rest of my story, Little Boy Blue. But I can testify that you were not surprised. Your brown eyes were simply shining with faith and expectation, as you trotted down the shore. But – who said you might call me 'Christobel'?"
"No one," replied the Boy. "I thought of it myself. It seemed so perfect to be able to say it on the first of my seven days. And, if you consider, I have never called you 'Miss Charteris.' You always seemed to me much too splendid to be 'Miss' anything. One might as well say 'Miss Joan of Arc' or 'Miss Diana of the Ephesians.' But of course I won't call you 'Christobel' if you would rather not."
"You quite absurd boy!" said the Aunt, laughing. "Call me anything you like – just for your seven days. But you have not yet told me the meaning or significance of these seven days."
The Boy sat forward, eagerly.
"It's like this," he said. "I have always loved the story of how the army of Israel marched round Jericho during seven days. It appeals to me. The well-garrisoned, invincible city, with its high walls and barred gates. The silent, determined army, marching round it, once every day. Apparently nothing was happening; but, in reality, their faith, enthusiasm, and will-power were undermining those mighty walls. And on the seventh day, when they marched round seven times to the blast of the priestly trumpets; at the seventh time, the ordeal of silence was over; leave was given to the great silent host to shout. So the rams' horns sounded a louder blast than ever; and then, with all the pent-up enthusiasm born of those seven days of silent marching, the people shouted! Down fell the walls of Jericho, and up the conquerors went, right into the heart of the citadel… I am prepared to march round in silence, during seven days; but on the seventh day, Jericho will be taken."
"I being Jericho, I conclude," remarked the Aunt, dryly. "I cannot say I have particularly noticed the silence. But that part of the programme would be decidedly dull; so we will omit it, and say, from the first: 'little Boy Blue, come blow me your horn!'"
"I shall blow it all right, on the seventh day," said the Boy, "and when I do, you will hear it."
He got up, came across, and knelt by the arm of her chair.
"I shall walk right up into the heart of the citadel," he said, "when the gates fly open, and the walls fall down; and there I shall find you, my Queen; and together we shall 'inherit the kingdom.' O dear unconquered Citadel! O beautiful, golden kingdom! Don't you wish it was the seventh day now, Christobel?"
His mouth looked so sweet, as he bent over her and said "Christobel," with a queer little accent on the final syllable, that the Aunt felt momentarily dizzy.
"Go back to your chair, at once, Boy," she whispered.
And he went.
Neither spoke a word, for some minutes. The Boy lay back, watching the mysterious moving of the mulberry leaves. The triumphant happiness in his face was a rather breathless thing to see. It made you want to hear a great orchestra burst into the Hallelujah Chorus.
The Aunt watched the Boy, and wondered whether she must tell him about the Professor, before the seventh day; and what he would say, when she did tell him; and how Jericho would feel when the army of Israel, with silent trumpets and banners drooping, marched disconsolate away, leaving its walls still standing; its gates still barred. Poor walls, supposed to be so mighty! Already they were trembling. If the Boy had not been so chivalrously obedient, he could have broken into the citadel, five minutes ago. Did he know? … She looked at his radiant face… Yes; he knew. There were not many things the Boy did not know. She must not allow the seven days, even though she could absolutely trust his obedience and his chivalry. She must tell him the rest of the story, and send him away to-day. Poor invading army, shorn of its glad triumph! Poor Jericho, left desolate! It was decidedly unusual to be compared to Jericho, and Diana of the Ephesians, and Joan of Arc, all in the same conversation; and it was rather funny to enjoy it. But then most things which happened by reason of the Boy were funny and unusual. He would always come marching 'as an army with banners.' The Professor would drive up to Jericho in a fly, and knock a decorous rat-tat on the gate. Would the walls tremble at that knock? Alas, alas! They had never trembled yet. Would they ever tremble again, save for the march-past of the Boy? Would the gates ever really fly open, except to the horn-blast of little Boy Blue? … The Aunt dared not think any longer. She felt she must take refuge in immediate action.
"Boy dear," she said, in her most maternal voice, "come down from the clouds, and listen to me. I want to tell you the rest of the story of my Little Boy Blue."
He sprang up, and came and sat on the grass at her feet. All the Boy's movements were so bewilderingly sudden. They were over and done, before you had time to consider whether or no you intended to allow them. But this new move was quite satisfactory. He looked less big and manly, down on the grass; and she really felt maternal, with his curly head so close to her knee. She even ventured to put out a cool motherly hand and smooth the hair back from his forehead, as she began to speak. She had intended to touch it only once – just to accentuate the fact of her motherliness – but it was the sort of soft thick hair which seemed meant for the gentle passing through it of a woman's fingers. And the Boy seemed to like it, for he gave one long sigh of content, and leaned his head against her knee.
"Now I must tell you," said the Aunt, "of the only other time when I ventured to speak to my Little Boy Blue. He had come to his favourite place beside the breakwater. The tide had long ago swept away castle, courtyard, and cannon; but the cannon-ball was still there. It partook of the nature of 'things that remain.' Heavy stones usually do! When I peeped over the breakwater, Little Boy Blue was sitting on the sand. His sturdy legs were spread wide. His bare toes looked like ten little pink sea-shells. Between his small brown knees, he had planted his bucket. His right hand wielded a wooden spade, on the handle of which was writ large, in blue pencil: Master Guy Chelsea. He was bent upon filling his bucket with sand. But the spade being long, and the bucket too close to him – (Boy, leave my shoe alone! It does not require attention) – most of the sand missed the bucket, and went over himself. I heard him sigh rather wearily, and say 'Blow!' in a tired little voice. I leaned over the breakwater. 'Little Boy Blue,' I said, 'may I play with you, and help you to fill your bucket with sand?'
"Little Boy Blue looked up. His curls, his eyebrows, his long dark eyelashes were full of sand. There was sand on his little straight nose. But no amount of sand could detract from the dignity of his little face, or weaken its stern decision. He laid down his spade, put up a damp little hand, and, lifting his blue cap to me, said: 'Fanks; but I don't like girls.' Oh, Master Guy Chelsea, how you snubbed me!"
The Boy's broad shoulders shook with laughter, but he captured the hand still smoothing his hair; and, drawing it down to his lips, kissed it gently, back and palm, and then each finger.
"Poor kind-hearted, well-meaning little girl," he said. "But she must admit, little girls of seven are not always attractive to small boys of six."
"I was not seven," said the Aunt, with portentous emphasis. "Leave go of my hand, Boy, and listen. When you were six, I was sixteen."
This bomb of the Aunt's was received with a moment's respectful silence, as befitted the discharge of her principal field-piece. Then the Boy's gay voice said:
"And what of that, dear? When I was six, you were sixteen. When I was twenty, you were twenty-nine – "
"Thirty, Boy; thirty! Be accurate. And now – you are twenty-six, and I am getting on towards forty – "
"Thirty-six, dear, thirty-six! Be accurate!" pleaded the Boy.
"And when you are forty, I shall be fifty; and when you are fifty, Boy – only fifty; a man is in his prime at fifty – I shall be sixty."
"And when I am eighty," said the Boy, "you will be ninety – an old lady is in her prime at ninety. What a charming old couple we shall be! I wonder if we shall still play tennis. I think quite the jolliest thing to do, when we are very very old – quite decrepit, you know – will be to stay at Folkestone, and hire two bath-chairs, with nice active old men to draw them; ancient, of course, but they would seem young compared to us; and then make them race on the Leas, a five-pound note to the winner, to insure them really galloping. We would start at the most crowded time, when the band was playing, and race in and out among lots of other bath-chairs going slowly, and simply terrified at us. Let's be sure and remember to do it, Christobel, sixty years from to-day. Have you a pocket-book? I shall be a gay young person of eighty-six, and you – "
"Boy dear," she said, bending over him, with a catch in her voice; "you must be serious and listen. When I have said that which I must say, you will understand directly that it is no use having your seven days. It will be better and wiser to raise the siege at once, and march away. Listen! … Hush, stay perfectly still. No; I can say what I am going to say more easily if you don't look at me… Please, Boy; please… I told you my 'Little Boy Blue stories' to make you realize how very much older I am than you. I was practically grown up, when you were still a dear delightful baby. I could have picked you up in my arms and carried you about. Oh, cannot you see that, however much I loved him – perhaps I should rather say: just because I love him, because I have always wanted to help him carry his heavy stones; make the best of his life, and accomplish manfully the tasks he sets himself to do – I could not possibly marry my Little Boy Blue? I could not, oh I could not, let him tie his youth and brightness to a woman, staid and middle-aged, who might almost be his mother!"
The earnest, anxious voice, eager in its determined insistence, ceased.
The Boy sat very still, his head bent forward, his brown hands clasping his knees. Then suddenly he knelt up beside her, leaned over the arm of her chair, and looked into her eyes. There was in his face such a tender reverence of adoration, that the Aunt knew she need not be afraid to have him so near. This was holy ground. She put from off her feet the shoes of doubt and distrust; waiting, in perfect calmness, to hear what he had to say.
"Dear," murmured the Boy, tenderly, "your little stories might possibly have had the effect you intended – specially the place where you paused and gazed at me as if you saw me still with sand upon my nose, and ten pink toes like sea-shells! That was calculated to make any chap feel youngish, and a bit shy. Wasn't it? Yes; they might have told the way you meant, were it not for one dear sentence which overshadows all the rest. You said just now: 'I knew my little Boy Blue had no mother. I wanted to take him in my arms, smooth his curls, and comfort him.' Christobel, that dear wish of yours was a gift you then gave to your Little Boy Blue. You can't take it away now, because he has grown bigger. He still has no mother, no sisters, no near relations in the world. That all holds good. Can you refuse him the haven, the help, the comfort you would have given him then, now – when at last he is old enough to know and understand; to turn to them, in grateful worship and wonder? Would you have me marry a girl as feather-brained, as harum-scarum, as silly as I often am myself? You suggest Mollie; but the Boy Blue of to-day agrees with his small wise self of twenty years ago and says: 'Fanks, but I don't like girls!' Oh, Christobel, I want a woman's love, a woman's arms, a woman's understanding tenderness! You said, just now, you wished you had been my mother. Does not the love of the sort of wife a fellow really wants, have a lot of the mother in it too? I've been filled with such a glory, Christobel, since you admitted what you felt for your Little Boy Blue because I seemed to know, somehow, that having once felt it, though the feeling may have gone to sleep, you could never put it quite away. But, if your Little Boy Blue came back, from the other end of the world, and wanted you – "
The Boy stopped suddenly, struck dumb by the look on the beautiful face beneath his. He saw it pale to absolute whiteness, while the dear firm lips faltered and trembled. He saw the startled pain leap into the eyes. He did not understand the cause of her emotion, or know that he had wakened in that strongly repressed nature the desperate hunger for motherhood, possible only to woman at the finest and best.
She realized now why she had never forgotten her Little Boy Blue of the Dovercourt sands. He, in his baby beauty and sweetness, had wakened the embryo mother in the warm-hearted girl of sixteen. And now he had come back, in the full strength of his young manhood, overflowing with passionate ideality and romance, to teach the lonely woman of thirty-six the true sweet meaning of love and of wifehood.
Her heart seemed to turn to marble and cease beating. She felt helpless in her pain. Only the touch of her Little Boy Blue, or of baby Boy Blues so like him, that they must have come trotting down the sands of life straight from the heaven of his love and hers, could ever still this ache at her bosom.
She looked helplessly up into his longing, glowing, boyish face – so sweet, so young, so beautiful.
Should she put up her arms and draw it to her breast?
She had given no actual promise to the Professor. She had not mentioned him to the Boy.
Ah, dear God! If one had waited twelve long years for a thing which was to prove but an empty husk after all! In order not to fail the possible expectations of another, had she any right to lay such a heavy burden of disappointment upon her little Boy Blue? And, if she must do so, how could she best help him to bear it?
"Fanks," came a brave little voice, with almost startling distinctness, across the shore of memory; "Fanks, but I always does my own cawwying."
At last she found her voice.
"Boy dear," she said, gently; "please go now. I am tired."
Then she shut her eyes.
In a few seconds she heard the gate close, and knew the garden was empty.
Tears slipped from between the closed lids, and coursed slowly down her cheeks. The only right way is apt to be a way of such pain at the moment, that even those souls possessing clearest vision and endowed with strongest faith, are unable to hear the golden clarion-call, sounding amid the din of present conflict: "Through much tribulation, enter into the kingdom."
Thus hopeless tears fell in the old garden.
And Martha, the elderly housekeeper, faithful but curious, let fall the lath of the green Venetian blind covering the storeroom window, through which she had permitted herself to peep. As the postern gate closed on the erect figure of the Boy, she dropped the blind and turned away, an unwonted tear running down the furrows of her hard old face.
"Lord love 'im!" she said. "He'll get what he wants in time. There's not a woman walks this earth as couldn't never refuse 'im nothing."
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