Florence Barclay.

Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Days



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"I thought you seemed finding them extra long, Boy. Why did you go to a drawing-room meeting?"

"I went," said the Boy, "because the dear old thing in whose house it was held asked me to go. She used to know my mother. When I was at Trinity she looked me up, often invited me to her charming home, gave me excellent little dinners, followed by the kindest, nicest, most nervous little preachments. Don't look amused, dear. I never failed to profit. I respected her for it. She is as good and genuine as they make 'em; and if she had stood up this afternoon, with her friendly smile, and dear shaky old voice, and given us an exposition of the twenty-third Psalm, we should have all come away quite 'good and happy.' Instead of which – oh, my wig!"

The Boy took an explosive bun, and put it whole into his mouth. "The only way to manage them on Sunday," he explained, as soon as speech was possible, "when sweeping is not the right thing. But let us hope Mollie's papa's 'clerical brethren' won't find it out. There would certainly be less conversation and fewer crumbs, but no fun at all."

"I don't think you need be afraid, Boy dear. Even should such a way out of the difficulty occur to them, I am inclined to think they would prefer the explosion, to the whole bun at a mouthful. It has a rather startling effect, you know, until one gets used to seeing it done. I can't quite imagine an archdeacon doing it, while standing on the hearthrug in conversation with my brother. Now tell me what the good lady said, which you found so trying."

"Oh, she meandered on," grumbled the Boy. "She told us all we should have been, if we had not been what we were; and all we might be, if we were not what we are; and all we shall be, when we are not what we are! She implored us to consider, and weigh well, where we should go, if, by a sudden and unexpected dispensation of Providence, we ceased to be where we then were. I jolly well knew the answer to that; for if Providence had suddenly dispensated – which it didn't, for a good three-quarters of an hour – I should have been here, here, HERE, as fast as my best Sunday boots could carry me!" His brown eyes softened. "Ah, think what 'here' means," he said. "Think! 'Here' means You!"

But Miss Charteris did not wish the conversation to become too meltingly personal.

"What else did she say, Boy?"

He consulted the mulberry leaves, then bounded in his chair. "Ha, I have it! I kept this tit-bit for you. She used an astronomical illustration, I haven't the least idea apropos of what, but she told us exactly how many millions of miles the sun is from the earth; and then she smiled upon us blandly, and said: 'Or is it billions?' Think of that! She said: 'Or is it billions?' in exactly the same tone of voice as she might have said of the bonnet she had on: 'I bought it, at a sale, for elevenpence three farthings, or was it a shilling?'"

"Oh, Boy, you really are naughty! I never connected you with personal sarcasm."

"Yes, but that sort of woman shouldn't," complained the Boy.

"And with half Cambridge sitting listening. 'Millions, or is it billions?' Oh lor!"

"Poor thing!" remarked Miss Charteris. "She could not have known that she had in the audience a person who had only just avoided the drawback to future enterprise, of being Senior Wrangler. Had she realized that, she would have been more careful with her figures."

"Tease away!" said the Boy. "I don't care, now I am safe here. Only I shan't tell you any more."

"I don't want to hear any more, Boy. I always enjoy appreciations, even of things I do not myself appreciate. But non-appreciations do not appeal to me. If a person has meant to be effective and proved inadequate, or tried to do good and done harm, I would rather not know it, unless I can help to put matters right. Have some more tea, Boy; and then I want to talk to you myself. I have something rather special to tell you."

The Boy stood up and brought his cup to the little table. When she had filled it, he knelt on one knee beside her, his elbow on the arm of her chair, and drank his tea there.

"I am sorry, dear," he said, presently. "I won't do it again. Perhaps I listened wrong, because I was bored at being there at all. I say, Christobel – it has just occurred to me – did you know my mother?"

The old garden was very still. A hush, as of the Paradise of God, seemed suddenly to fall upon it. As the Boy asked his quiet question, a spirit seemed to hover, between them and the green dome of mulberry leaves above them, smoothing the Boy's tumbled hair, and touching the noble brow of the woman the Boy loved; a gentle, watching, thankful spirit – eternally remembering, and tenderly glad to be remembered. For a few moments the silence was a silence which could not be broken. The Boy lifted wondering eyes to the moving leaves. Christobel laid her hand upon his, as it gripped her chair. An unseen voice seemed to whisper to the Boy – not in the stern tones of the Church, but as an eager, anxious, question: "Wilt thou – have – this woman – to be thy wedded wife?" And silently the Boy replied: "Please God, I will"; and, bending, kissed the hand resting on his.

The spell lifted. Christobel spoke.

"Yes, Boy dear, I knew her. I have often wondered whether I might tell you. She and my mother were dear friends. I was thirteen when she died. You were three, poor Little Boy Blue! Two things I specially remember about your mother: the peculiar radiance of her face – a light from within, shining out; and the fact that when she was in a room the whole atmosphere seemed rarefied, beautified, uplifted. I think she lived very near heaven, Boy; and, like Enoch, she walked straight in one day, and came back no more. She 'was not'; for God took her."

Another long holy silence. The mulberry leaves were still. Then the Boy said, softly: "Some day, will you tell me heaps more – details – lots of little things about her? No one ever has. But I seem almost to begin to remember her, when you talk of her. Meanwhile, may I show you this?"

He drew from the inner pocket of his coat, a small well-worn pocket-Bible. Opening it at the fly-leaf, he passed it to Miss Charteris.

"It was hers," he said.

She bent over it and read the inscription:

M. A. Chelsea
"Through faith and patience inherit the promises."

Below, in a delicate writing, traced by a hand that trembled:

To my Baby Boy from his Mother
"I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."

She looked at it in silence. How much had this book meant during all these years, to the "Baby Boy"? Had the book in his pocket, and the prayers hovering about him, something to do with the fact that he was still – just Little Boy Blue?

The Boy had taken a fountain pen from his pocket, and was shaking it vigorously over the grass.

Now he passed it to her.

"Write your dear name beneath," he said.

Infinitely touched, she made no comment, raised no question. She took the pen, and wrote just "Christobel."

"And the evening and the morning were the fourth day."

THE FIFTH DAY
GUY CHELSEA TAKES CONTROL

"Now, Sir Boy," said Miss Charteris with decision, "this is your fifth day. Our time is nearly over. You have done most of the talking. You have had things entirely your own way. What? … Oh, well, almost entirely your own way. I have allowed you to play your Old Testament game to your heart's content. With commendable adaptability, I have been Jericho, and you have marched round. I have been Jericho in my own garden, and have refreshed the invading army with hot buttered-toast and explosive buns. Now it is my turn to take the initiative. Jenkins having removed the tea, and it being too hot for tennis, I am going to ask you to sit still, while I explain to you quite clearly why I must send you away at the close of the seventh day."

She tried to hide her extreme trepidation beneath a tone of gay banter. She hoped it did not sound as forced to him as it did to herself. The Boy's clear eyes were fixed upon her. Had he noticed the trembling of her hands, before she steadied them by laying hold of the arms of her chair?

"So now for a serious talk, if you please, Sir Boy."

"Excuse me, dear," said the Boy, "the Israelites were not allowed to parley."

"You need not parley," said Miss Charteris; "you are requested merely to listen. You may smoke if you like. I understand cigarette smoke is fatal to black-beetles. Possibly it has the same effect on garden insects. Russell tells me we are overrun by snails. Smoke, Boy, if you like."

"Dear," said the Boy, his head thrown back, his hands thrust deep into his coat pockets, "I never have the smallest desire to smoke in your presence. I should feel as if I were smoking in church."

"Oh, you dear amazing altogether absurd boy! Don't look at me like that. And don't say such unexpected things, or I shall be unable to parley satisfactorily."

"When I went to school," remarked the Boy, "and you were an engaging little girl in a pigtail, I was taught to say: 'Do not look at me thus'; at least, masters frequently appeared to think it necessary to make that remark to me. I can't imagine why; because they were not specially worth looking at; excepting that a very large person, in a very angry condition, always presented a spectacle of extreme interest to my juvenile mind. It was so fascinating to watch and see what they would do next. They were like those wooden monkeys and bears you buy in Swiss shops, don't you know? You pull a hanging string, and their legs and arms jump about unexpectedly. One always felt a really angry grown-up was a mere puppet. Unseen fingers were pulling the string; and it was funny to watch. There was an exciting element of danger, too; because sometimes a hand jerked up and boxed your ears."

"Little Boy Blue," she said, "it must have been quite impossible ever to be mildly angry with you. Either one would have waxed impotently furious; or one would have wanted to – to hug you!"

The Boy leapt up.

"Sit down," said Miss Charteris, "or I shall send you away. And I do not wish to do that; because I have quite made up my mind to tell you to-day, a thing which I suppose I ought to have told you long ago; and I tried to do so, Boy; but somehow you always made it impossible. I want to – to tell you about – the Professor." She paused.

It was so very difficult. It was like rolling a heavy stone up a steep hill. And the Boy made no attempt to help her. He lay back with an exaggerated display of resignation. He looked at her with sleepy, amused eyes. And he asked no questions. The army of Israel obviously declined to parley.

"I have long felt I ought to tell you about the Professor," continued Miss Charteris.

The Boy sighed. "I think I jolly well know all there is to know about professors," he said.

"Not about this one," explained Miss Charteris. "He is my Professor."

"Oh, if he's your Professor," said the Boy, sitting up, "of course I am interested. But I am not sure that I approve of you having a tame Professor; especially when it arrives in goloshes, and leaves them in the hall."

"I am afraid nobody will ask whether you approve or not, Little Boy Blue. The Professor has been a great friend of mine during nearly twelve years; and I think I am possibly – in fact, very probably – going to marry the Professor."

"Really?" said the Boy. "May I ask when he proposed?"

"He has not proposed, Boy."

The Boy produced his pocket-book, took out a calendar, and studied it attentively.

"Then I'm afraid you will have some time to wait," he said. "It will not be leap year again until 1912."

This sounded impertinent; but the Boy could no more have been guilty of intentional impertinence toward her, than he could have picked her pocket; and Miss Charteris knew it. There was one thing of which those who had dealings with Christobel Charteris could always be sure – absolute justice. She had seen the Boy's face whiten suddenly, to a terrible pallor, beneath his tan. She knew he was making a desperate fight for self-control. How best could she help? Her own part seemed almost more than she could manage.

"Come here, Boy dear," she said, holding out her hand.

He hesitated one instant; then rose unsteadily to his feet, and came – not to his usual place at the side, bending over her; but in front of her, on one knee, silently waiting.

She bent forward. "Take my hand, Boy."

He took it, in a firm unhesitating clasp. They held each other so, in silence. The colour came back into the Boy's face. The dumb horror died out of his eyes. They smiled into hers again.

"Now promise me, Boy dear, that you will let me tell you all; and that you will try not to misunderstand."

"My dearest," said the Boy, "I promise. But I do not need to say I will try not to misunderstand. I could not misunderstand you, if I tried."

"Then go back to your chair, Boy."

He went. His eyes were bright again.

"Boy, please to understand that I am not engaged to the Professor. Of course, had that been the case, I should have told you, long ago. He has never said one word to me of love or marriage. But he has been a great friend – an intimate friend, intellectually; and I have reason to know that he wishes – has wished for years – a good deal more than he has ever expressed to me. He has waited, Boy; and when anybody has waited nearly twelve years, could one fail them?"

"Why, of course!" cried the Boy, eagerly. "If a man could wait twelve years – good heavens, why shouldn't he wait twenty! A man has no business to wait; or to be able to wait; or to keep a woman waiting. Twelve years? Oh, I say! I didn't wait twelve days. Now, did I?"

She smiled. "You break all speed records, Boy, always. But cannot you understand that all men have not fifty thousand a year, and the world at their feet? Had you been penniless, Boy, you – even you – would have had to wait."

"Not a bit!" said the Boy, stoutly. "I would drive a cab, I would sweep a crossing, I would do anything, or be anything; but I wouldn't wait for the woman I loved; nor would I" – his voice dropped almost to a whisper – "keep the woman who loved me, waiting."

"But suppose she had a comfortable little income of her own; and you had less – much less – to offer her? Surely, Boy, proper pride would keep you from asking her to marry you, until your income at least equalled hers?"

"Not a bit!" said the Boy. "That sort of rot isn't proper pride. It's just selfish false pride. However much a woman had, when a man – a man, mind you, not an old woman, or a thing with no pluck or vertebra – when a man gives a woman his whole love, his whole life, the worship of his whole body, heart, and soul, he has given her that which no money could buy; and were she a millionairess she would still be poor if, from false pride, he robbed her of that gift which was his to give her – and perhaps his alone."

"Boy dear," she said, gently; "it sounds very plausible. But it is so easy to be plausible with fifty thousand a year in the background. Let me tell you about the Professor. He has, of course, his fellowship, and is quite comfortably off now, living as a bachelor, in rooms. But he practically supports his unmarried sister, considerably older than himself, who lives in a tiny little villa, and keeps one maid. The Professor could not afford to marry, and set up a larger establishment, on his present income; at least he apparently thinks he could not. And your theory of robbing the woman who – the woman he loves, does not appear to have occurred to him. But, during all these years he has been compiling an Encyclopedia – I don't suppose you know what an Encyclopedia is, Boy."

"Oh, don't I?" said the Boy. "It's a thing you pile up on the floor to stand upon when you want to fix a new pipe-rack."

Miss Charteris ignored this trying definition of an Encyclopedia.

"The Professor is compiling a wonderful book," she said, with dignity; "and, when it is completed and published, he will be in a position to marry."

"Has he told you so?" inquired the Boy.

"No, Boy. He has never mentioned the subject of marriage to me. But he has told his sister; and she has told me."

"Ha!" said the Boy. "Miss Hann, I suppose. I must say, I distrust Miss Hann."

"What do you know of Miss Ann?" inquired Christobel, astonished.

"Only that she's always a-hegging of 'em on," said the Boy, calmly.

The indignant blood rushed into the fair proud face.

"Boy! You've been gossiping with Martha."

"I have, dear; I admit it. You see, I arrived early, on the third day; found the garden empty; went gaily into the house to look for you. Ran up into the hall; when up got a pair of old goloshes – eh, what? Oh, sorry – up got a pair of new goloshes, and hit me in the eye! A professor's cap and gown hung up, as if at home; and while I meditated upon these things, the voice of my Belov?d was uplifted in loud and sonorous Greek, exclaiming: 'Avaunt, rash youth! Thou impudent intruder!' Can you wonder that I avaunted – to Martha?"

"You will please tell me at once all Martha said to you."

"Of course I will, dear. Don't be vexed. I always meant to tell you, some time or other. I asked her whose were the goloshes; the umbrella with the – er – decided figure; the suspended cap and gown. Martha said they were the Professor's. I inquired whether the Professor stayed to tea. You really can't blame me for asking that; because I had gone to the kitchen for the express purpose of carrying out the tea-tray, yours and mine; but not the Professor's. No possible pleasure could have resulted, either to you, or to me, or to the Professor, from my unexpected appearance with the tea-tray, if the Professor had been there. Now could it? I think it would be nice of you, dear, and only fair, if, remembering the peculiar circumstances of that afternoon, you just said: 'No; it couldn't.'

"Well, I asked Martha whether the Professor stayed to tea, and heard that 'Thank goodness, no!' we drew the line at that, except when Miss Hann came too. With the awful possibility of Miss Hann 'coming too,' on one of my priceless days, I naturally desired a little light thrown on Miss Hann. I was considerably relieved to learn that Miss Hann suffers from the peculiar complaint – mental, I gather – of 'fancying herself in a bath-chair.' This might be no hindrance to the 'hegging on' propensities, but it certainly diminished the chances of the 'coming too.' That was all, dear."

"Boy, you ought to have been ashamed of yourself!"

"So I was, the moment I saw you walk down the lawn. But you really needn't look so indignant. I was working for you, at the same time."

"Working for me?"

"Yes, dear. I told Martha her wisps would look nicer if she curled them. I also suggested 'invisible pins.' If you like I will tell you how I came to know about 'invisible pins'; but it is a very long story, and not specially interesting, for the lady in the case was my great-aunt."

"Oh, Boy," said Miss Charteris, laughing in spite of herself; "I wish you were the size of my Little Boy Blue on the sands at Dovercourt. I would dearly like to shake you."

"Well," he said, "you did more than shake me, just now. You gave me about the worst five minutes I ever had in my life. Christobel? You don't really care about the Professor?"

"Boy, dear, I really do. I have cared about him very much, for years."

"Yes, as a woman loves a book; but not as a woman loves a man."

"Explain your meaning, please."

"Oh, hang it all!" exclaimed the Boy, violently. "Do you love his mouth, his eyes, his hair – ?" The Boy choked, and stopped short.

Miss Charteris considered, and replied with careful deliberation. "I do not know that I have ever seen his mouth; he wears a beard. His eyes are not strong, but they look very kind through his glasses. His hair? Well, really, he has not much to speak of. But all these things matter very little. His mind is great and beautiful; his thoughts appeal to me. I understand his way of viewing things: he understands mine. It would be a wonderful privilege to be able to make life easy and happy for one for whom I have so profound a respect and esteem. I have looked upon it, during the last few years, as a privilege which is, eventually, to be mine."

"Christobel," cried the Boy, "it is wrong, it is terrible! It is not the highest. I can't stand it, and I won't. I will not let you give yourself to a wizened old bookworm – "

"Be quiet, Boy," she said, sharply. "Do you wish to make me really angry? The Professor is not old. He is only fourteen years my senior. To your extreme youth, fifty may seem old. The Professor is in his prime. I am afraid we have nothing to gain, Boy, by prolonging this discussion."

"But we can't leave it at this," said the Boy, desperately. "Where do I come in?"

"My Little Boy Blue, I am afraid you don't come in at all, excepting as a very sweet idyll which, all through the years to come, I shall never forget. You begged for your seven days, and I gave them. But I never led you to assume I could say 'Yes.' Now listen, Boy, and I will tell you the honest truth. I do not know that I am ever going to marry the Professor. I only feel pledged to him from the vague belief that we each consider the other is waiting. Don't break your heart over it, Boy; because it is more than likely it will never come to pass. But – even were there no Professor – oh, Boy dear, I could not marry you. I love my Little Boy Blue more tenderly and deeply than I have ever before loved anything or any one on this earth. But I could not marry a boy, however dearly I loved him; however sweet was his love to me. I am a woman grown, and I could surrender myself wholly, only to a man who would wholly be my mate and master. I cannot pretend to call my Little Boy Blue 'the man I love,' because he is really dearest to me when I think of him, with expectation in his baby-eyes, trotting down the sands to find his cannon-ball… Oh, Boy, I am hurting you! I hate to hurt you, Boy. Your love is so beautiful. Nothing as perfect will ever touch my life again. Yet I cannot, honestly, give what you ask… Boy dear, ought I to have told you, quite plainly, sooner? If so, you must forgive me."



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