Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Days
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"I don't incline to 'Lucy' or 'Clara,' sir," said Mrs. Jenkins, decidedly; "being, as they always strikes me, sickly story-book sort of names; but I do like justice and a free country! I always have felt doubtful o' them Lords, since I listened to my married niece's husband, a very respectable journeyman tailor but mostly out of work; and if it's their doing that I'm 'Martha,' well, I shall know what to do with Jenkins's vote – that's all!"
The Boy slapped his leg and rocked. "Martha, you ought to be put up to speak at political meetings. That's the whole thing in a nutshell: cause, effect, results, arguments, everything! Oh, my wig! – Yes, they are a lot of old stick-in-the-muds in the Upper House, aren't they?" pursued the Boy – who had had a long line of dignified ancestors in that much abused place; had an uncle there at the present moment, and was more than likely eventually to have to sit there himself – "a rotten lot of old stick-in-the-muds, Martha; but I think they did well by you. I'd give them the benefit of Jenkins's vote. I really would. I am glad they chose 'M,' not 'N.' Naomi was a widow and dismal. She never made the smallest effort to buck up. But Martha was a nice person; a bit flurried perhaps, and hot-tempered; but well up in cooking, and keen on it. I like Martha."
The Boy sat and meditated. Why did she read Greek plays with a person who left goloshes on the mat, and brought out an ancient umbrella with a waist, on an absolutely cloudless day?
"It wasn't m' own name surprised me, Mr. Guy, sir," remarked Martha, coyly; "it was the name you was pleased to hadd."
The Boy pulled himself together. "Eh, what? Oh, 'Martha, my duck'? I see. I hope you don't mind, Martha. It seemed to me rather a suitable and pretty addition to 'Martha.' You see, yours is a name which cannot be shortened when one feels affectionate. 'Sarah' can be 'Sally'; 'Amelia' can be 'Milly'; 'Caroline' can be 'Carrie'; but 'Martha' remains 'Martha' however loving people feel. What does Jenkins call you when he feels affectionate?"
Martha snorted. "Jenkins knows 'is place," she said, jerking the round lid off the stove, and putting on the kettle.
"Jenkins is a model," smiled the Boy.
Then Martha looked round, her feminine curiosity, and perhaps a touch of jealousy, getting the better of her respectful discretion. She had seen so much, and heard so little; and she was a very old family servant.
"What do you call her, Mr. Guy?" she asked, in a confidential whisper, with a jerk of the head toward the mulberry-tree.
"Her?" repeated the Boy, surprised. Then his whole tone softened. It was so sweet to speak her name to some one. "I call her 'Christobel,'" he said, gently.
But Martha wanted to know more. Martha was woman enough to desire an unshared possession of her own. She bent over the fire, stirring it through the bars.
"Mr. Guy, sir, I suppose you don't – I suppose you do – that is to say, sir – Do you call her what you've been pleased to call me?"
"Eh, what?" said the Boy, vaguely.
"Oh, I see.'Christobel, my – ' Oh, no, Martha. No, I don't! Not even when I feel most affectionate." Here the Boy was seized with sudden convulsions, slapped his knee noiselessly, and rocked on the kitchen table. He whispered it, in an ecstasy of enjoyment. "'Christobel, my duck!' Oh, lor! 'Christobel, my duck!' I hope I shall be able to resist telling her. I should have to own I had called Martha so. 'Christobel, my – '"
Martha, wondering at the silence, looked round suddenly. But the Boy had that instant recovered, and was sitting gravely on the corner of the table.
"Martha, my duck," he said, "to return to the original opening of this conversation: has Jenkins ever told you what a nice little wisp of hair you have, behind your left ear?"
"Get along, sir!" retorted Martha, fairly blushing. "You're making game of me."
"Indeed, I'm not," said the Boy, seriously. "If you made it into a curl, Martha, and fastened it with an invisible pin, it would be quite too fascinating. You ask Jenkins. I say, Martha? What's a placket?"
"A placket, sir," said Martha, on her way to fetch something from a shelf near which hung the kitchen mirror; "a placket, sir, is a thing which shows when it shouldn't."
"I see," said the Boy. "Then you couldn't exactly go about in one. Martha, whose goloshes are those, sitting on the mat in the hall?"
Martha snorted. "An old woman's," she said, wrathfully.
The Boy considered this. "And does the umbrella with the waist belong to the same old woman?"
"And the Professor's cap and gown, hanging near by?"
Martha hesitated. "'Tain't always petticoats makes an old woman," she said, sententiously.
"Martha, you are pro-foundly right," said the Boy. "Does the Professor stay to tea?"
"Thank goodness no, sir. We draw the line at that, 'cept when Miss Hann comes too."
"Who is Miss Hann?"
"She's the Professor's sister." Martha hesitated; poured hot water into the silver teapot; then turned to whisper confidentially, with concentrated dislike: "She's always a-hegging of 'em on!"
"What a curious occupation," remarked the Boy, blowing a smoke-ring. "Does Miss Hann come often?"
"No, Mr. Guy. Thanks be, she's a hinvalid."
"Poor Miss Hann. What's the matter with her?"
Martha snorted. "Fancies herself too much."
"What a curious complaint. What are the symptoms?"
"Fancies herself in a bath-chair," said Martha, scornfully.
"I see," said the Boy. "Oh, poor Miss Hann! I should feel very sick if I fancied myself in a bath-chair. I wish I could meet Miss Hann. I should like to talk to her about the hegging-on business."
"You'd make her sit up," said Martha, with spiteful enjoyment.
"Oh no, I shouldn't," said the Boy. "That would not be kind to an invalid. I should see that she reclined, comfortably; and then I should jolly well flatten her out."
At that moment a shadow fell across the sunny window. Miss Charteris, her guest having departed, passed down the garden steps, and moved across the lawn.
The Boy sprang to his feet. At sight of her, his conscience smote him that he should have thus gossiped and chaffed with old Martha. He suddenly remembered why he had originally found his way to the kitchen.
"Martha," he said; "I want you to let me carry out the tea-tray this afternoon. She doesn't know I am here. She will think it is you or Jenkins, till she looks round. Let me carry it out, Martha, there's a duck!"
"As you please, sir," said Martha; "but if you want her to think it's Jenkins, you must put it down with a clatter. It takes a man to be clumsy."
The Boy walked over to the window. The mulberry-tree was not visible from the kitchen table.
"Don't go there, Mr. Guy!" cried Martha. "Miss Christobel will see you, sir. This window, and the pantry, show from the garden. If you want to 'ave a look at her, go through that door into the storeroom. The Venetian blind is always down in there. There is one crack through which I – "
Martha stopped short, disconcerted.
"One crack through which you think I could see? Thank you, Martha," said the Boy, readily. "Hurry up with the tray."
He went into the store-room; found Martha's chink, and realized exactly what had been the extent of Martha's view, during the last two days.
Then he bent his hungry young eyes on Christobel.
She was seated in a garden chair, her back to the house, her face towards the postern gate in the old red wall at the bottom of the garden. The rustic table, upon which he would soon deposit the tea-tray, was slightly behind and to the left of her. The sun shone through the mulberry leaves, glinting on the pure whiteness of her gown. She leaned her beautiful head back wearily. Her whole attitude betokened fatigue. He could not see her face; but he felt sure her eyes were open; and he knew her eyes were on the gate.
The Boy's lips moved. "Christobel," he whispered. "Christobel – belov?d?"
She was waiting; and he knew she was waiting for him.
Presently he dropped the lath of the Venetian blind, and turned to go. But first he took out his pocket-book and fastened the lath which lifted most easily, to those above and below it, with halfpenny stamps. He knew old Martha would take a hint from him. There must be no eyes on the mulberry-tree to-day.
In the kitchen the tray was ready; tea freshly made, thin bread-and-butter, cucumber sandwiches; hot buttered-toast in perfection; cornflour buns, warranted to explode; all the things he liked most; and, best of all, cups for two. He grasped the tray firmly with both hands.
"Martha," he said, "you are a jewel! I give you leave to watch me down the lawn from the kitchen window. But when I have safely arrived, turn your attention to your own tea, or I shall look up and shake my fist at your dear nice old face. And, I say, Martha, do you ever write postcards? Because, if you want any ha'penny stamps, you will find some on the storeroom blind. Only, don't want them, Martha, till this week is over, and I am gone."
Whereupon the Boy lifted the tray, and made for the door.
Down the lawn he bore it, and set it safely on the rustic table. He was very deft of movement, was the Boy; yet, remembering his instructions, he contrived to set it down with something of a clatter.
Miss Charteris did not turn her head Her eyes, half closed beneath the long lashes, were on the postern gate.
"Jenkins?" she said.
"Yes, ma'am," replied the Boy, in excellent imitation of the meek tones of Jenkins.
"Should any one call this afternoon, Jenkins, please remember that I am not 'at home.'"
"Hip, hip, hurrah!" said the Boy.
Then she turned – and her face was all, and more than all, he had hoped it might be.
"Oh, Boy," she said. "Oh, Boy dear!"
After that, it was a very happy tea. Neither had been quite natural, nor had they been really true to themselves, the day before; so the delight of meeting seemed to follow a longer parting than the actual twenty-four hours. The Boy's brown eyes rested in tenderness on the hand that filled his cup, and she did not say "Don't"; she merely smiled indulgently, and added the cream and sugar slowly, as if to let him do what he willed.
The hum of bees was in the garden; a sense of youth was in the air. The sunbeams danced among the mulberry leaves.
The Boy insisted upon carrying back the tray, to do away at once with the possibility of interruption from Jenkins. Then he drew their chairs into the deeper shade of the mulberry-tree, a corner invisible from all windows. The Boy had learned a lesson while looking through the storeroom blind.
There they sat and talked, in calm content. It did not seem to matter much of what they spoke, so long as they could lie back facing one another; each listening to the voice which held so much more of meaning in it than the mere words it uttered; each looking into the eyes which had now become clear windows through which shone the soul.
Suddenly the Boy said: "How silly we were, the other day, to talk of the relative ages of our bodies. What do they matter? Our souls are the real you and I. And our souls are always the same age. Some souls are old – old from the first. I have seen an old soul look out of the eyes of a little child; and I have seen a young soul dance in the eyes of an old, old woman. You and I, thank God, have young souls, Christobel, and we shall be eternally young."
He stretched his arms over his head, in utter joyful content with life.
"Go on, Boy dear," said Christobel. "I am not sure that I agree with you; but I like to hear you talk."
"At first," he said, "our bodies are so babyish that our souls do not find them an adequate medium of expression. But by and by our bodies grow and develop; after which come the beautiful years of perfection, ten, twenty, thirty of them, when the young soul goes strong and gay through life, clad in the strong gay young body. Then – gradually, gradually, the strong young soul, in its unwearied, immortal youth, wears out the body. The body grows old, but not the soul. Nothing can age that; and when at last the body quite wears out, the young soul breaks free, and begins again. Youthful souls wear out their bodies quicker than old ones; just as a strong young boy romps through a suit of clothes sooner than a weakly old man. But there is always life more abundant, and a fuller life farther on. So the mating of souls is the all-important thing; and when young souls meet and mate, what does it matter if there be a few years' difference in the ages of their bodies? Their essential youthfulness will surmount all that."
Christobel looked at him, and truly for a moment the young soul in her leapt out to his, in glad response. Then the other side of the question rose before her.
"Ah, but, Boy dear," she said, "the souls express themselves – their needs, their delights, their activities – through the bodies. And suppose one body, in the soul-union, is wearing out sooner than the other; that is hard on the other – hard on both. Boy – my Little Boy Blue – shall I tell you an awful secret? I suppose I sat too closely over my books at Girton; I suppose I was not sufficiently careful about good print, or good light. Anyway – Boy dear – I have to use glasses when I read." She looked wistfully into his bright eyes. "You see? Already I am beginning to grow old." Her sweet lips trembled.
In a moment he was kneeling by the arm of her chair, bending over her, as he did on the first day; but as he did not do yesterday. Suddenly she realized why she had felt so flat yesterday, after he was gone.
He lifted her hand and kissed it gently, back and palm. Then he parted the third finger from the rest, with his own brown ones, and held that against his warm young lips.
She drew her hand slowly away; passed it over his hair; then let it fall upon her lap. She could not speak; she could not move; she could not send him away. She wanted him so – her little Boy Blue, of long ago.
"Old, my Belov?d?" he said. "You – old! Never! Always perfect – perfect to me. And why not wear glasses? Heaps of mere kids wear glasses, and wear them all the time. Only – how alarmingly clever you must look in spectacles, Christobel. It would terrify me now; but by and by it will make me feel proud. I think one would expect glasses to go with those awe-inspiring classical honours. With my barely respectable B.A., I daren't lay claim to any outward marks of erudition." Then, as she did not smile, but still gazed up at him, wistfully, his look softened to still deeper tenderness: "Dear eyes," he murmured, "oh dear, dear eyes," and gently laid his lips on each in turn.
"Don't," she said, with a half sob. "Ah, Boy, don't! You know you must not kiss me."
"Kiss you!" he said, still bending over her. "Do you call that kissing?" Then he laughed; and the joyous love in his laughter wrung her heart. "Christobel, on the seventh day, when the gates fly open, and the walls fall down; when the citadel surrenders; when you admit you are my own —then I shall kiss you; then you will know what kissing really means."
He bent above her. His lips were very near to hers. She closed her eyes and waited. Her own lips trembled. She knew how fearfully it tempted the Boy that her lips should tremble because his were near; yet she let them tremble. She forgot to remember the past; she forgot to consider the future. She was conscious of only one thing: that she wanted her Little Boy Blue to teach her what kissing really meant. So she closed her eyes and waited.
She did not hear him go; but presently she knew he was no longer there.
She opened her eyes.
The Boy had walked across the lawn, and stood looking into the golden heart of an opening yellow rose. His back appeared very uncompromising; very determined; very erect.
She rose and walked over to him. As she moved forward, with the graceful dignity of motion which was always hers, her mental balance returned.
She slipped her hand beneath his arm. "Come, Boy," she said; "let us walk up and down, and talk. It is enervating to sit too long in the sunshine."
He turned at once, suiting his step to hers, and they paced the lawn in silence.
When they reached the postern gate the Boy stood still. Something in his look suddenly recalled her Little Boy Blue, when the sand on his small nose could not detract from the dignity of his little face, nor weaken its stern decision.
He took both her hands in his, and looked into her eyes.
"Christobel," he said, "I must go. I must go, because I dare not stay. You are so wonderful this afternoon; so dear beyond expression. I know you trust me absolutely; but this is only the third day; and I cannot trust myself, dear. So I'm off!"
He lifted both her hands to his lips.
"May I go, my Queen?" he said.
"Yes, Boy," she answered. "Go."
And he went.
It was hard to hear the thud of the closing door. For some time she stood waiting, just on the inside. She thought he would come back, and she wished him to find her there, the moment he opened the door.
But the Boy – being the Boy – did not come back.
Presently she returned to her chair, in the shade of the mulberry-tree. She lay, with closed eyes, and lived again through the afternoon, from the moment when the Boy had said: "Hip, hip, hurrah!" There came a time when she turned very pale, and her lips trembled, as they had done before.
At length she rose and paced slowly up the lawn. On her face was the quiet calm of an irrevocable decision.
"To-morrow," she said, "I must tell the Boy about the Professor."
In the middle of the night, Martha, being wakeful, became haunted by the remembrance of the smoke, as it had curled from cracks and keyholes in the kitchen. She felt constrained to put on a wonderful pink wrapper, and go creaking slowly down the stairs to make sure the house was not on fire. Martha's wakefulness was partly caused by the unusual fact of a large and hard curl-paper, behind her left ear.
Miss Charteris was also awake. She was not worried by memories of smoke, or visions of fire; and her soft hair was completely innocent of curl-papers. But she was considering how she should tell the boy about the Professor; and that consideration was not conducive to calm slumber. She heard Martha go creaking down the stairs; and, as Martha came creaking up again, she opened her door, and confronted her.
"What are you doing, Martha?" she said.
Martha, intensely conscious of her curl-paper, was about to answer with more than her usual respectful irritability, when the eyes of the two women – mistress and maid – met, in the light of their respective candles, and a sudden sense of fellowship in the cause of their night vigil passed between them.
Martha smiled – a crooked smile, half ashamed to be seen smiling. When she spoke, her aspirates fell away from her more completely than in the daytime.
"'E went crawlin' about the kitchen," she said, in a muffled midnight whisper; "all in 'is white flannels, puffin' smoke in every crack an' 'ole to kill the beetles. So kind 'e meant it; but I couldn't sleep for wonderin' if the place was smokin' still. I 'ad to go down an' see. 'Ow came you to be awake, Miss Christobel?"
"Things he said in the garden, Martha, have given me food for thought. I began thinking them over; and sleep went."
Martha smiled again – and this time the smile came more easily. "'E 'as a way of keepin' one on the go," she said; "but we'd best be gittin' to sleep now, miss. 'E'll be at it again to-morrow, bless 'is 'eart!" And Martha, in her pink wrapper, lumbered upwards.
But the Boy, who had this disturbing effect on the women who loved him, slept soundly himself, one arm flung high above his tumbled head. And if the sweet mother, who perforce had had to let her dying arms slip from about her baby-boy, almost before his little feet could carry him across a room, saw from above the pure radiance on his lips and brow as he slept, she must have turned to the Emerald Throne with glad thanksgiving for the answer vouchsafed to a dead mother's prayers.
"And the evening and the morning were the third day."
THE FOURTH DAY