Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Days
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The Boy had risen, and stood before her. "You always do the right thing," he said, "and never, under any circumstances, could there be anything for me to forgive you. I have been an egregious young ass. I have taken things for granted, all along the line. What must you think of me! Why should you care? You, with your intellectual attainments, your honours, your high standing in the world of books? Why should you care, Christobel? Why should you care?"
He stood before her, straight and tall and desperately implacable. The exuberant youth had died out of his face. For the first time, she could not see in him her Little Boy Blue.
"Why should you care?" he said again.
She rose and faced him. "But I do care, Boy," she said. "How dare you pretend to think I don't? I care very tenderly and deeply."
"Pooh!" said the Boy. "Do you suppose I wished you to marry a bare-toed baby, with sand on its nose?" He laughed wildly; paused and looked at her, then laughed again. "A silly little ass that said it didn't like girls? Oh, I say! I think it's about time I was off. Will you walk down to the gate? … Thanks. You are always most awfully good to me. I say, Miss Charteris, may I ask the Professor's name?"
"Harvey," she said, quietly. "Kenrick Harvey." The dull anguish at her heart seemed almost more than she could bear. Yet what could she say or do? He was merely accepting her own decision.
"Harvey?" he said. "Why of course I know him. He's not much to look at, is he? But we always thought him an awfully good sort, and kind as they make 'em. We considered him a confirmed bachelor; but – well, we didn't know he was waiting."
They had reached the postern gate. Oh, would he see the growing pain in her eyes? What was she losing? What had she lost? Why did her whole life seem passing out through that green gate?
"Good-bye," he said, "and please forget all the rot I talked about Jericho. It goes with the spade and bucket, and all the rest. You have been most awfully kind to me, all along. But the very kindest thing you can do now, is to forget all the impossible things I thought and said… Allow me… I'll shut the door."
He put up his hand, to lift his cap; but he was bareheaded. He laughed again; turned, and passed out.
"Boy! Boy! Come back," said Christobel. But the door had closed on the first word.
She stood alone.
This time she did not wait. Where was the good of waiting?
She turned and walked slowly up the lawn, pausing to look at the flowers in the border. The yellow roses still looked golden. The jolly little "what-d'-you-call-'ems" lifted pale purple faces to the sky.
But the Boy was gone.
She reached her chair, where he had placed it, deep in the shade of the mulberry-tree. She felt tired; worn-out; old.
The Boy was gone.
She leaned back with closed eyes. She had hurt him so. She remembered all the glad, sweet confident things he had said each day.Now she had hurt him so… What radiant faith, in love and in life, had been his. But she had spoiled that faith, and dimmed that brightness.
Suddenly she remembered his dead mother's prayer for him. "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." And under those words she had written "Christobel." Would he want to obliterate that name? No, she knew he would not. Nothing approaching a hard or a bitter thought could ever find a place in his heart. It would always be the golden heart of her little Boy Blue.
Tears forced their way beneath her closed lashes, and rolled slowly down her cheeks.
"Oh, Boy dear," she said aloud, "I love you so – I love you so!"
"I know you do, dear," he said. "It's almost unbelievable – yet I know you do."
She opened her eyes. The Boy had come back. She had not heard his light step, on the springy turf. He knelt in his favourite place, on the left of her chair, and bent over her. Once more his face was radiant. His faith had not failed.
She looked up into his shining eyes, and the joy in her own heart made her dizzy.
"Boy dear," she whispered, "not my lips, because – I am not altogether yours – I may have to – you know? – the Professor. But, oh Boy, I can't help it! I'm afraid I care terribly."
He was quite silent; yet it seemed to her that he had shouted. A burst of trumpet-triumph seemed to fill the air.
He bent lower. "Of course I wouldn't, Christobel," he said; "not before the seventh day. But there's a lot beside lips, and it's all so dear."
Then she felt the Boy's kisses on her hair, on her brow, on her eyes. "Dear eyes," he said, "shedding tears for my pain. Ah, dear eyes!" And he kissed them again.
She put up her hand, to push him gently away. He captured it, and held it to his lips.
"Stop, Boy dear," she said. "Be good now, and sit down."
He slipped to the grass at her feet, and rested his head against her knee.
She stroked his hair, with gentle, tender touch. Her Little Boy Blue had come back to her. Oh, bliss unutterable! Why worry about the future?
"How silly we were, dear!" he said. "How silly to suppose we could part like that – you and I!" Then his sudden merry laugh rang out – oh, such music! such sweet music! "I say, Christobel," he said, "it is all very well now to say 'Stop, and be good.' But on the seventh day, when the walls fall down, and I march up into the citadel, I shall give you millions of kisses – or will it be billions?"
"Judging from my knowledge of you, Boy dear," she said, "I rather think it would be billions."
Later, as they stood once more by the postern gate, he turned, framed in the doorway, smiling a last gay good-bye.
It was their second parting that day, and how different from the first. There was to be a third, unlike either, before the day was over; but its approach was, as yet, unsuspected.
But as he stood in the doorway, full in a shaft of sunlight, the glad certainty in his eyes smote her with sudden apprehension.
"Oh, Boy dear," she said, "take care! You are building castles again. They will tumble about our ears. I haven't promised you anything, Little Boy Blue of mine; and I am afraid I shall have to marry the Professor."
"If you do, dear," he said, "I shall have to give him a new umbrella as a wedding present!" And the Boy went whistling down the lane.
But, out of sight of the postern gate and of the woman who, leaning against it, watched him to the turning, he dropped his bounding step and jaunty bearing. His face grew set and anxious; his walk, perplexed.
"Oh, God," said the Boy, as he walked, "don't let me lose her!"
A few minutes later, a telegram was put into his hand from the friend left on the coast, in charge of his newest aeroplane.
"Arrange Channel flight, if possible, day after to-morrow."
"Not I," said the Boy, crumpling the message into his pocket. "The day after to-morrow is the seventh day."
He was dining with friends, but an unaccountable restlessness seized him during the evening. He made his excuses, and returned to the Bull Hotel soon after nine o'clock. The hall-porter at once handed him a note, left by special messenger, ten minutes earlier. It was marked "urgent." The handwriting was Christobel's.
The Boy flung away his cigarette, tore the note open, and turned to a light. It was very short and clear.
"Boy dear, – I must see you at once. You will find me in the garden.
When the Boy had turned the corner and disappeared, Miss Charteris passed through the little postern gate, and moved slowly up the lawn. Ah, how different to her sad return from that gate an hour before!
The William Allen Richardsons still opened their golden hearts to the sunset. The jolly little "what-d'-you-call-'ems" still lifted their purple faces to the sky. But instead of stabbing her with agony, they sang a fragrant psalm of love.
Ah, why was the Boy so dear? Why was the Boy so near? She had watched him go striding down the lane, yet he still walked beside her; his gay young laugh of glad content was in her ears; his pure young kisses on her brow and eyes; his head against her knee.
Just as she reached the mulberry, Jenkins hastened from the house. The note he brought, in a familiar handwriting, thin and pointed, was marked "urgent" in one corner, and "immediate" in the other; but Miss Ann's notes usually were one or other. This happened to be both.
"You need not wait, Jenkins," she said.
She stood close to a spreading branch of the mulberry. Her tall head was up among the moving leaves. Whispering, they caressed her. Something withheld her from entering the soft shade, sacred to herself and the Boy. She stood, to read Ann Harvey's letter.
As she read, every vestige of colour left her face. Bending over the letter, she might have been a sorely troubled and perplexed replica of the noble Venus of Milo.
Folding the letter, she went slowly up the lawn, still wearing that white look of cold dismay. She spoke to Martha through the open window, keeping her face out of sight.
"Martha," she said, "I am obliged to go immediately to Miss Ann. If I am not back by eight o'clock, I shall be remaining with her for dinner." She passed on, and Martha turned to Jenkins.
By the way, Jenkins was having an unusually festive time. During the last twenty-four hours, Martha had been kinder to him than he had ever known her to be. He was now comfortably ensconced in the Windsor armchair in a corner of the kitchen, reading yesterday's daily paper, and enjoying his pipe. Never before had his pipe been allowed in the kitchen; but he had just been graciously told he might bring it in, if he wouldn't be "messy with the hashes"; Mrs. Jenkins volunteering the additional remarkable information, that it was "good for the beetles." Jenkins was doubtful as to whether this meant that his pipe gave pleasure to the beetles, or the reverse; but experience had taught him that a condition of peaceful uncertainty in his own mind was to be preferred to a torrent of vituperative explanation from Martha. He therefore also received in silence the apparently unnecessary injunction not to go "crawlin' about all over the floor"; it took "a figure to do that!"
Eight o'clock came, and Miss Charteris had not returned.
"Remaining with 'er for dinner," pronounced Martha, flinging open the oven, and wrathfully relegating to the larder the chicken she had been roasting with extreme care; "an' a precious poor dinner it'll be! Jenkins, you may 'ave this sparrow-grass. I 'aven't the 'eart. An' me 'oping she'd 'ave 'ad the sense to keep 'im to dinner; knowing as there was a chicking an' 'grass for two. Now what's took Miss Hann 'urgent and immediate,' I'd like to know!" continued Martha, deriving considerable comfort from banging the plates and tumblers on to the kitchen table, with just as much violence as was consistent with their personal safety, as she walked round it, laying the table for supper. "Ate a biscuit, I should think, an' flown to 'er cheat. I've no patience; no, that I 'aven't!" And Martha attacked the loaf, with fury.
At a quarter before nine, Miss Charteris returned. In a few moments the bell summoned Jenkins. The note he was to take was also marked "Immediate." He left it on the kitchen table, and, while he changed his coat, Martha fetched her glasses. Then she followed him to the pantry.
"'Ere, run man!" she said, "run! Never mind your muffler. Who wants a muffler in June? 'E's in it! It's something more than a biscuit. Drat that woman!"
A quarter of an hour later, a tall white figure moved noiselessly down the lawn, to the seats beneath the mulberry. The full moon was just rising above the high red wall, gliding up among the trees, huge and golden through their branches. Christobel Charteris waited in the garden for the Boy.
By then, the lawn was bathed in moonlight. She saw him, tall and slim, in the conventional black and white of a man's evening dress, pass silently through the postern gate. She noted that he did not bang it. He came up the lawn slowly – for him. He wore no hat, and every clear-cut feature of the clean-shaven young face showed up in the moonlight.
At the mulberry, he paused, uncertain; peering into the dark shadow.
"Christobel?" he said, softly.
"Boy dear; I am here. Come."
He came; feeling his way among the chairs, and moving aside a table, which stood between.
He found her, sitting where he had found her, on his return, three hours before. A single ray of moonlight pierced the thick foliage of the mulberry, and fell across her face. He marked its unusual pallor. He stood before her, put one hand on each arm of her chair, and bent over her.
"What is it?" he said, softly. "What is it, dear heart? It is so wonderful to be wanted, and sent for. But let me know quickly that you are not in any trouble."
She looked up at him dumbly, during five, ten, twenty seconds. Then she said: "Boy, I have something to tell you. Will you help me to tell it?"
"Of course I will," he said. "How can I help best?"
"I don't know," she answered. "Oh, I don't know!"
He considered a moment. Then he sat down on the grass at her feet, and leaned his head against her knees. She passed her fingers softly through his hair.
"What happened after I had gone?" asked the Boy.
"Jenkins brought me a note from Miss Harvey, asking me to come to her at once, to hear some very wonderful news, intimately affecting herself, and the Professor, and – and me. She wrote very ecstatically and excitedly, poor dear. She always does. Of course, I went."
"Well?" said the Boy, gently. The pause was so very long, that it seemed to require supplementing. He felt for the other hand, which had been holding the lace at her breast, and drew it to his lips. It was wet with tears.
The Boy started. He sat up; turned, resting his arm upon her lap, and tried to see her face.
"Go on, dear," he said. "Get it over."
"Boy," said Miss Charteris, "a rich old uncle of the Harveys has died, leaving the Professor a very considerable legacy, sufficient to make him quite independent of his fellowship, and of the production of the Encyclopedia."
"They are very happy about it, naturally. Poor Ann is happier than I have ever seen her. And the chief cause of their joy appears to be that now the Professor is, at last, in a position to marry."
"I have not seen him yet, but Miss Ann is full of it. She told me a good many very touching things. I had no idea it had meant so much – to him – all these years. – Boy dear?"
"I shall have to marry the Professor."
"I don't know how to make you understand why I feel so bound to them. They were very old friends of my father and mother. They were so good to me through all the days of sorrow, when I was left alone. Miss Ann is a great invalid, and very dependent upon love and care, and upon not being thwarted in her little hopes and plans. She expects to come and live in – in her brother's home. She knows I should love to have her. And he has done so much for me, intellectually; so patiently kept my mind alive, when it was inclined to stagnate; and working, when it would have grown slack. He has given up hours of his valuable time to me, every week, for years."
Suddenly the moonlight, through an opening in the mulberry leaves, fell upon his upturned face. She saw the anguish in his eyes. She turned his head away, resting it against her knee, and clasped her hands upon it.
"Boy dear; it is terribly hard for us, I know. In a most extraordinary way – in a way I cannot understand – you have won my body. It yearns to be with you; it aches if you suffer; it lives in your gladness; it grows young in your youth. Nobody else has ever made me feel this; I do not suppose anybody else ever will. But – oh Boy – bodies are not everything. Bodies are the least of all. And I think – I think the Professor holds my mind. He won it long ago. I have grown much older since then, and very tired of waiting. But I can look back to the time when I used to think the greatest privilege in the world would be, to be the – to marry the Professor."
She paused, and waited.
"Bodies count," said the Boy, in a low voice. "You'll jolly well find, that bodies count."
It was such a relief to hear him speak at last.
"Oh, I know, Boy dear," she said. "But more between some, than others. The Professor and I are united, primarily, on the mental and spiritual plane. Being so sure of this, realizing the difference, makes it less hard, in a way, to – to give up my Little Boy Blue. Boy dear, you must help me; because I love you as I have never loved anybody else in this world before; as I know I never shall love again. But I am bound in honour not to disappoint the man who knows I have waited for him. Miss Ann admitted to me to-night that she has told him. She said, in the first moments of joy she had to tell him; he was so anxious; and so diffident. Boy dear, had it not been for that, I think I should have begged off. But – as he knows – as they have trusted me – dear, we must say 'good-bye' to-night. He is going to write to me to-morrow, asking if he may come. I shall say: 'Yes.' … Boy dear? Is it very hard? … Oh, can't you see where duty comes in? There can be no true happiness if one has failed to be true to what one knows is just and right… Can't you realize, Boy, that they have been everything to me for seven years? You have come in, for seven days."
"Time is nothing," said the Boy, suddenly. "You and I are one, Christobel; eternally, indissolubly one. You will find it out, when it is too late. Age is nothing! Time is nothing! Love is all!"
She hesitated. The Boy's theories were so vital, so vigorous, so assured. Was she making a mistake? There was no question as to the pain involved by her decision; but was that pain to result as she believed, in higher good to all; or was it to mean irreparable loss? The very knowledge that her body so yearned for him, led her to emphasize the fact that the Boy could not – oh surely could not – be a fit mate for her mind. Yet he was so confident, so sure of himself, in regard to her, on every point; so unhesitatingly certain that they were meant for each other.
And then she saw Ann Harvey, with clasped hands, saying: "Darling child, forgive me, but I had to tell Kenrick! He is so humble– he was so diffident, so doubtful of his own powers of attraction. I had to tell him that I knew you had been very fond of him for years. I did not say much, sweet child; but just enough to give dear Kenrick hope and confidence."
She could see Miss Ann's delicate wrinkled face; the tearful eyes; the lavender ribbons on her lace cap; the mysterious hair-brooch, fastening the old lace at her neck. The scene was photographed upon her memory; for, in that moment, Hope – the young Hope, born of the youthful Boy and his desires – had died. Christobel Charteris had taken up the burden of life; a life apart from the seven days' romance, created by the amazing over-confidence of her Little Boy Blue.
The masterful man attracts; but, in the end, it is usually the diffident man who wins. The innate unselfishness of the noblest type of woman, causes her to yield more readily to the insistence of her pity than to the force of her desire. In these cases, marriage and martyrdom are really – though unconsciously – synonymous; and the same pure, holy courage which went smiling to the stake, goes smiling to the altar. Does a martyr's crown await it, in another world? Possibly. The only perplexing question, in these cases, being: What awaits the wrecked life of "the other man"?
Christobel Charteris had put her hand to the plough; she would not look back.
"Little Boy Blue," she said, "you must say 'good-bye' and go. I am going to marry the Professor quite soon, and I must not see you again. Say 'good-bye,' Boy dear."
Then the Boy's anguish broke through all bounds. He flung his arms around her, and hid his face in her lap. A sudden throb of speechless agony seemed to overwhelm them both, submerging all arguments, all casuistry, all obligations to others, in a molten ocean of love and pain.
Then she heard the Boy pray: "O God, give her to me! Give her to me! O God, give her to me!"
"Hush, Boy," she said; "oh, hush!"
He was silent at once.
Then bending, she gathered him to her, holding his face against her breast; sheltering him in the tenderness of her arms. He had never seemed so completely her own Little Boy Blue as in that moment, when she listened to his hopeless prayer: "O God, give her to me!" This was the Little Boy Blue who tried to carry cannon-balls; who faced the world, with sand upon his nose; cloudless faith in his bright eyes; indomitable courage in his heart. She forgot the man's estate to which he had attained; she forgot the man's request to which she had given a final denial. She held him as she had first longed to do, when his nurse, in unreasonable wrath, shook him on the sands; she rocked him gently to and fro, as his dead mother might have done, long years ago. "Oh, my Little Boy Blue, my Little Boy Blue!" she said.
Suddenly she felt the Boy's hot tears upon her neck.
Then, in undreamed of pain, her heart stood still. Then the full passion of her tenderness awoke, and found voice in an exceeding bitter cry.
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