Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Daysскачать книгу бесплатно
With which startling array of negatives, old Martha compiled one supreme positive in favour of the Boy, leaving altogether out of account – alas! – the Professor.
Then she wiped her eyes with her apron, and chid her nose harshly for an unexpected display of sentiment.
And the Boy tramped back to his hotel with his soul full of glory, knowing his first march round had been to some purpose. The walls of the belov?d Citadel had trembled indeed.
"And the evening and the morning were the first day."
THE SECOND DAY
MISS CHARTERIS TAKES CONTROL
The Boy arrived in flannels, his racket under his arm. He came in, as usual, through the little green gate in the red-brick fruit-wall at the bottom of the garden. From the first, he had taken this privilege, which as a matter of fact had never been accorded to anybody.
The Professor always entered by the front door, placed his umbrella in the stand, wet or shine; left his goloshes on the mat: hung up his cap and gown, and followed Jenkins into the drawing-room. Though he had called regularly, twice a week, during the last dozen years – first on his old friend and tutor, Professor Charteris; after his death, on his widow and daughter; and, when Miss Charteris was left alone, on herself only – he never failed to knock and ring; nor did he ever enter unannounced.
The Boy had dashed in at the garden gate on the occasion of his second visit, and appeared to consider that he had thus created a precedent which should always be followed.
Once, and once only – on her thirtieth birthday – the Professor had brought Miss Charteris a bouquet; but, being very absent-minded, he deposited the bouquet on the mat, and advanced into the drawing-room carrying his goloshes in his left hand. Having shaken hands with his right, he vaguely presented the goloshes. Miss Charteris, never at a loss where her friends were concerned, took the Professor's goloshes from his hand, carried them out into the hall, found the bouquet on the mat, and saved the situation by putting the flowers in water, and thanking the Professor with somewhat more hilarity than the ordinary presentation of a bouquet would have called forth.
But to return to the second day. The Boy arrived in flannels, and tea was a merry meal. The Boy wanted particulars concerning the marriage, which had taken place a year or so before, between Martha – maid of thirty years' standing, now acting as cook-housekeeper to Miss Charteris – and Jenkins, the butler. The Boy wanted to know which proposed, Jenkins or Martha; in what terms they announced the fact of their engagement, to Miss Charteris; whether Jenkins ever "bucked up and looked like a bridegroom," and whether Martha wore orange-blossom and a wedding veil. He extorted the admission that Christobel had been present at the wedding, and insisted on a detailed account; over which, when given at last, he slapped his knee so often, and went into such peals of laughter, that Miss Charteris glanced anxiously towards the kitchen and pantry windows, which unfortunately looked out on the garden.
The Boy expatiated on his enthusiastic admiration for Martha; but at the same time was jolly well certain he would have bolted when it came to "I, Martha, take thee, Jenkins," had he stood in the latter's shoes.
Miss Charteris did not dare admit, that as a matter of fact the sentence had been: "I, Martha, take thee, Noah." That the meek Jenkins should possess so historical and patriarchal a name, would completely have finished the Boy, who was already taking considerable risks by combining much laughter with an unusually large number of explosive buns.
The Boy would have it, that, excepting in the r?le of bride and subsequent conjugal owner and disciplinarian, Martha was perfect.
Miss Charteris admitted Martha's unrivalled excellence as a cook, her economy in management, and fidelity of heart. But Martha had a temper. Also, though undoubtedly a superficial fault, yet trying to the artistic eye of Miss Charteris, Martha's hair was apt to be dishevelled and untidy.
"It is a bit wispy," admitted the Boy, reluctantly. "Why don't you tell her so?"
Miss Charteris smiled. "Boy dear, I daren't! It would be as much as my place is worth, to make a personal observation to Martha!"
"I'll tell her for you, if you like," said the Boy, coolly.
"If you do," warned Miss Charteris, "it will be the very last remark you will ever make in Martha's kitchen, Boy."
"Oh, there are ways of telling," said the Boy, airily; and pinched an explosive bun.
After tea they took their rackets and strolled down the lawn, pausing a moment while she chose him a buttonhole. The tie was orange on this second day, and she gathered the opening bud of a William Allen Richardson rose. She smiled into its golden heart as she pinned it in his white flannel coat. Somehow it brought a flash of remembrance of the golden heart of Little Boy Blue, who could not bear that any one should be past praying for, or that even a scarecrow should seem lonely.
They crossed the lane and entered the paddock; tightened the net on the tennis-court; chose out half a dozen brand-new balls, and settled down to fast and furious singles.
Miss Charteris played as well as she had ever played in her life; but the Boy was off his service, and she beat him six to four. Next time, he pulled off 'games all,' but lost the set; then was beaten, three to six.
Miss Charteris was glowing with the exercise, and the consciousness of being in great form.
"Boy dear!" she called, as she played the winning stroke of the third set, "I'm afraid you're lazy to-day!"
The Boy walked up to the net, and looked at her through his racket.
"I'm not lazy," he said; "but I'm on the wrong side of Jordan. This sort of thing is waste of time. I want to go over, and start marching."
"Don't be absurd, Boy. I prefer this side Jordan, thank you; and you shall stay here until you beat me."
The Boy won the next set.
It was deliciously cool and quiet under the mulberry-tree.
The Boy was quite subdued – for him. He seemed inclined to do his marching in silence, on this second day.
Miss Charteris felt her mental balance restored. She held the reins to-day, and began considering how to deal wisely with the Boy. So much depended upon how she managed him.
At length she said: "Boy, when you were at Trinity, I often used to see you. I knew you were my Little Boy Blue of all those years ago. I used to feel inclined to send for you, talk to you for your good, and urge you to set to, and do great things; but I remembered the stone, and the bucket; and I did not want to let myself in for a third snubbing."
The Boy smiled. "Did you think me a lazy beggar?" he asked. "I wasn't really, you know. I did quite a good deal of all kinds of things. But I didn't want to get played out. I wanted to do things all the rest of my life. Fellows who grind at college and come out Senior Wranglers, begin and end there. You don't hear of 'em again."
"I see," said Miss Charteris, amusement in her eyes. "So you felt it wisest to avoid being Senior Wrangler?"
"Just so," said the Boy. "I was content with a fairly respectable B.A. and I hope you saw me take it. How rotten it is, going up in a bunch, all hanging on to an old chap's fingers."
"Boy, Boy! I know all about you! You wasted golden opportunities; you declined to use your excellent abilities; you gave the authorities an anxious time. You were so disgracefully popular, that everybody thought your example the finest thing to follow, and you were more or less responsible for every lark and row which took place during your time."
The Boy did not smile. He looked at her, with a quaint, innocent seriousness, which made her feel almost uncomfortable.
"Dear," he said, "I had plenty of money, and heaps of friends, and I wanted to have a good time. Also I wanted all the other fellows to have a good time; and I enjoyed getting the better of all the old fogies who had forgotten what youth was like – if they'd ever known it. And I had no mother to ask me questions, and no sisters to turn up at my rooms unexpectedly. But I can tell you this, Christobel. I hope to be married soon; and I hope to marry a woman so sweet and noble and pure, that her very presence tests a man's every thought, feeling, and memory. And I can honestly look into your dear eyes and say: My wife will be welcome to know every detail of every prank I ever played in Cambridge; nor is there a thing in those three years I need feel ashamed of her knowing. There! Will that do?"
Miss Charteris threw out a deprecatory hand. "Oh, Boy dear!" she said. "I never doubted that. My Little Boy Blue, don't I know you? But I cannot let you talk as if you owe me any explanations. How curious to think I saw you so often during those years, yet we never actually met."
The Boy smiled. "Yes," he said, "we were all awfully proud of you, you know. What was it you took at Girton?"
Miss Charteris mentioned, modestly, the highest honours in classics as yet taken by a woman. The Boy had often heard it before. But he listened with bated breath.
"Yes," he said, "we were awfully proud of it, because of your tennis, and because of you being – well, just you. If you had been a round-shouldered little person in a placket, we should have taken it differently. We always called you 'The Goddess,' because of your splendid walk. Did you know?"
"No, Boy, I did not know; but I confess to feeling immensely flattered. Only, take a friend's advice, and avoid conversational allusions to plackets, because you are obviously ignorant of the meaning of the word. And now, tell me? Having successfully escaped so serious a drawback to future greatness as becoming Senior Wrangler, on what definite enterprise have you embarked?"
"Flying," said the Boy, sitting forward in his chair. "I am going to break every record. I am going to fly higher, farther, faster, than any man has ever flown before. This week, if I had not stayed on here – you know originally I came up only for the 'May week' – I was to have done a Channel flight. Ah, you don't know what it means, to own three flying-machines, all of different make, and each the best of its kind! You feel you own the world! And then to climb into your seat and go whirling away, with the wonderful hum in your ears, mastering the air – the hitherto invincible air. May I tell you what I am going to do for my next fly? Start from the high ground between Dover and Folkestone; fly over the Channel; circle round Boulogne Cathedral – you remember the high dome, rising out of the old town surrounded by the ramparts? Then back across the Channel, and to ground again at Folkestone; all in one flight; and I hope to do it in record time, if winds are right."
"And if winds are wrong, Boy? If you rush out and take the horrid risks of the cross-currents you told us about? If something happens to your propeller, and you fall headlong into the sea?"
"Oh, it's all U P then," said the Boy, lightly. "But one never expects that sort of thing to happen; and when it does, all is over so quickly that there is no time for anticipation. Beside, there must be pioneers. Every good life given, advances the cause."
Christobel Charteris looked at him. His was not the terrible, unmistakable, relentless face of the bird-man. He was brilliant with enthusiasm, but it was the enthusiasm of the sportsman, keen to excel; of Young England, dauntless, fearless, eager to break records. The spirit of the true bird-man had not, as yet, entered into her Little Boy Blue.
She pressed her hand upon her bosom. It ached still.
"Boy dear," she said, softly. "Has it ever struck you that, if you marry, your wife – whoever she might be – would most probably want you to give up flying? I cannot imagine a woman being able to bear that a man who was her all, should do these things."
The Boy never turned a hair! He did not bound in his seat. He did not even look at her.
"Why, of course, dear," he said, "if you wished it, I should give up flying, like a shot, and sell my aeroplanes. I know plenty of chaps who would like to buy them to-morrow. And I'll tell you what we would do. We'd buy the biggest, most powerful motor-car we could get, and we'd tear all over the country, exceeding the speed-limit, and doing everything jolly we could think of. That would be every bit as good as flying, if – if we did it together. I say, Christobel – do you know how to make a sentence of 'together'? Just three words: to get her! That's what 'together' spells for me now."
Miss Charteris smiled. "You might have taken honours in spelling, Boy. And I am not the sort of person who enjoys exceeding speed-limits. Also I am afraid I have a troublesome habit of always wanting to stop and see all there is to see."
But the Boy was infinitely accommodating. "Oh, we wouldn't exceed the speed-limit – much. And we would stop everywhere, and see everything. You should breakfast in London; lunch at the Old White Horse, Mr. Pickwick's inn at Ipswich; have tea at the Maid's Head, beneath the shadow of Norwich Cathedral, where you could wash your hands in Queen Elizabeth's fusty old bedroom – what a lot of bedrooms Queen Elizabeth slept in, and made them all fusty – and have time to show me Little Boy Blue's breakwater at Dovercourt, before dinner. There's nothing like motoring!"
"It sounds interesting, certainly," said Miss Charteris.
"And then," continued the Boy, in a calm business-like voice, "it's less expensive than flying. You run through fifty thousand a year in no time with aeroplanes. And of course we should want to open both my places. I'm awfully glad I didn't let the tenants in the old home renew their lease. As it is, they turn out in three months. Oh, I say, Christobel, I do believe it is a setting worthy of you. Have you ever seen it? The great hall, the old pictures, the oak staircase – I once rode down it on my rocking-horse and came to utter smash. And outside – the park, the lake, the beech avenue, the rose-garden, the peacocks. And a funny little old village belongs to us. Think how the people must want looking after. I believe you would like it all – I really believe you would! And think, ah, just think what it would be to me, to see my own splendid wife, queen over everything in my dear jolly old home! Hullo! – Hark to all the clocks! What is that striking? Seven? Oh, I say! I'm dining with the Master to-night. I must rush off, and change. Though I was such a bad lot, they all seem quite pleased to see me again. Really they do! Have I stayed too long? … Sure? … May I come to-morrow? … You are most awfully good to me. Good-bye."
And the Boy was gone. He had held her hand, in a firm, strong clasp, a second longer than the conventional handshake; his clear eyes, exactly on a level with hers, had looked at her gravely, wistfully, tenderly; and he was gone.
She walked slowly up the lawn. She must write a few letters before post time; then dress for her solitary dinner.
She felt a little flat; quite without cause. What could have been more satisfactory, in every way, than the Boy's visit; in spite of his absurd castles in the air? These must be tactfully demolished to-morrow. To-day, it was wisest just to let him talk.
Poor Little Boy Blue! Instead of the walls of Jericho falling, his own castles in the air would come tumbling about his ears. Poor Little Boy Blue!
She felt she had been completely mistress of the situation to-day, holding it exactly as she wished it to be. There was no need to fear the remaining days.
And when the seven days were over – what then? … She certainly felt very flat this evening. How suddenly the Boy had gone! There was still so much she wanted to say to him… And to-morrow was the Professor's afternoon. Mercifully, he never stayed later than four o'clock. It was to be hoped the Boy would not turn up early! But there was never any knowing what the Boy would do.
She smiled as she mounted the flight of stone steps, and passed into the house.
And, outside the postern gate, the Boy threw up his cap, and caught it; then started off and sprinted a hundred yards; then, turning aside, leapt a five-barred gate, and made off across the fields. When he pulled up at last, in his own bedroom, he had just time to tub, shave, and wrestle with his evening clothes. He communed with himself in the few moments of enforced stillness, while he mastered his tie.
"That was all right," he said. "I jolly well worked that all right! There was nothing to frighten her to-day – not a thing. Dear lips! They never trembled once; and no more turning faint. And, my Goody, how she lectured me! I wonder who's been telling her what. I know why she did it too. She wanted to feel quite sure she was bossing the show. And so she was, bless her! But I marched round! Yes, I jolly well marched round… Oh, I say! Can't you stop where I put you?" This, to his tie.
Then, with her golden rose in his button-hole, fastened by the pin from his flannel coat, off went the Boy to dine with the Master of his college.
"And the evening and the morning were the second day."
THE THIRD DAY
THE BOY INVADES THE KITCHEN
The Boy sat on a corner of the kitchen table, swinging a loose leg, and watching Martha make hot buttered-toast.
He had arrived early, and, finding no one in the garden, had entered the house by the garden-door, to pursue investigations upstairs.
On the mat in the hall he saw a pair of goloshes; in the umbrella-stand, a very large, badly-rolled umbrella; hanging on a peg near by, a professor's cap and gown.
The Boy stood stock still in the middle of the little hall, and looked at the goloshes.
Then from the drawing-room, through the closed door, came the voice of Miss Charteris – full, clear, measured, melodious – reading Greek tragedy.
?rrois anaid?s, ?n t?chei nean?a declaimed Miss Charteris; and the Boy fled.
Arrived in the kitchen, he persuaded Martha that cigarette smoke was fatal to black-beetles. He went about, blowing fragrant clouds into every possible crack and cranny. Martha watched him, out of the corner of her eye, crawling along under the dresser in his immaculate white flannels, and Martha blessed her stars that her kitchen floor was so spotlessly clean. Only this morning she had remarked to Jenkins that he could very well eat his dinner off the boards. Mercifully, Jenkins – tiresome man though he usually was – had not taken this literally; or he might have made the floor less fit for the Boy's perambulations.
Having taken all this trouble in order to establish his unquestioned right to smoke in Martha's kitchen, and to pose as a public benefactor while so doing, the Boy seated himself on the edge of the table, exactly behind Martha; lighted a fresh "Zenith," and prepared to enjoy himself.
Martha glanced nervously at the smoke, issuing from cracks and holes on all sides. It gave her a feeling that the house was on fire. Of course she knew it was not; but to feel the house is on fire, is only one degree less alarming than to know it is. However, beetles are nasty things; and the condescending kindness and regard for Martha's personal comfort, which crawled about after them in white flannels, was gratifying to a degree.
So Martha turned and gave the Boy one of her unusual smiles. He was very intently blowing rings – "bubbles" Martha called them afterwards, when explaining them to Jenkins; but that was Martha's mistake. They were smoke rings. It was one of the Boy's special accomplishments. He was an expert at blowing rings.
Presently: – "Martha, my duck – " he said suddenly.
Martha jumped. "Bless us, Mr. Guy! What a name!"
"What's the matter with it?" inquired the Boy, innocently. "I consider it a very nice name, and scriptural."
"Oh, I didn't mean m' own name," explained Martha, more flushed than the warmth of the fire warranted. "Not but what m' godfathers and godmothers might well 'ave chosen me a better."
"Oh, don't blame them, overmuch, Martha," said the Boy, earnestly. "You see their choice was limited. If you study your catechism you will find that it had to be 'N' or 'M' – 'Naomi' or 'Martha.' Even at that early age, they thought you favoured 'Martha' rather than 'Naomi'; so they named you 'Martha.'"
"Well I never!" exclaimed Mrs. Jenkins. "'N' or 'M'! So it is! Now I never noticed that before. We live and learn! And Jenkins – silly man – 'as always bin annoyed that they named 'im 'Noah.' But how about when you was christened, Mr. Guy?"
"Oh," explained the Boy, with a wave of his cigarette, "I was christened a bit later than you, Martha; and, by that time, Parliament had sat in solemn convocation, and had brought in a Bill to the effect that all needless and vexatious limitations and restrictions in the Prayer Book might for the future be disregarded. The first to go was 'N' or 'M.'"
"Well, I never!" said Martha. "I wish they'd ha' done it afore my time."
"You see," expounded the Boy, who was enjoying himself vastly, and getting the conjunction of the goloshes and the Greek play off his mind; "you see, Martha, those progressive Bills, intimately affecting the whole community, of vital importance to the nation at large, are always blocked by the House of Lords. If the Commons could have had their own way, you might have been named 'Lucy' or 'Clara.'"скачать книгу бесплатно
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