Florence Barclay.

Through the Postern Gate: A Romance in Seven Days



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An hour later, somewhat tired in body, and completely exhausted in mind, Miss Charteris walked home. She made a detour, in order to pass along the lane, and enter through the postern gate at the bottom of the garden.

She opened it, and passed in.

A shaft of sunlight lay along the lawn. The jolly little "what d'-you-call-'ems" lifted gay purple faces to the sky.

She paused in the doorway, trying to realize how this quiet green seclusion, the old-fashioned flower-borders, the spreading mulberry-tree, the quaint white house, in the distance, with its green shutters, must have looked to the Boy each day, as he came in. She knew he had more eye for colour, and more knowledge of artistic effect, than his casual acquaintances might suppose. It would not surprise her some day to find, as one of the gems of the New Gallery, a reproduction of her own garden, with a halo of jolly little "what-d'-you-call-'ems" in the borders, and an indication of seats, deep in the shadow of the mulberry-tree. She would not need to refer to the catalogue for the artist's name. The Boy had had a painting in the Academy the year before. She had chanced to see it. Noticing the name of her Little Boy Blue of the Dovercourt sands in the catalogue, she had made her way through the crowded rooms, and found his picture. It hung on the line. She had been struck by its thoughtful beauty, and wealth of imaginative skill. She had not forgotten that picture; and during all these days she had been quietly waiting to hear the Boy say he had had a painting in the Academy. Then she was going to tell him she had seen it, had greatly admired it, and had noted with pleasure all the kind things critics had said of it.

But, the subject of pictures not having come up, it had not occurred to the Boy to mention it. The Boy never talked of what he had done, because he had done it. But were a subject mentioned upon which he was keen, he would bound up, with shining eyes, and tell you all he knew about it; all he had seen, heard, and done; all he was doing, and all he hoped to do in the future, in connexion with that particular thing. He would never have thought of informing you that he owned three aeroplanes. But if the subject of aviation came up, and you said to the Boy: "Do you know anything about it?" he would lean forward, beaming at you, and say: "I should jolly well think I do!" and talk aeroplanes to you for as long as you were willing to listen. This trait of the Boy's, caused shallow-minded people to consider him conceited. But the woman he loved knew how to distinguish between keenness and conceit; between exuberant enthusiasm and egotistical self-assertion; and the woman who loved him, smiled tenderly as she remembered that even on the day when she scolded him, and he had to admit his "barely respectable B.A.," he had not told her of the painting hung on the line and mentioned in the Times. Yet if the question of art had come up, the Boy would very probably have sat forward in his chair, and talked about his painting, straight on end, for half an hour.

She still stood beneath the archway, in the red-brick wall, as these thoughts chased quickly through her mind.

She would have made a fair picture for any one who had chanced to be waiting beneath the mulberry-tree, with eyes upon the gate.

"Straight on end for half an hour, he would have talked about his picture; and how bright his eyes would have been. And then I should have said: 'I saw it, Boy dear; and it was quite as beautiful as you say.' And he would have answered: 'It jolly well gave you the feeling of the scene, didn't it, Christobel?' And I should have known that his delight in it, as an artistic success, had nothing to do with the fact that it was painted by himself. Just because egotism is impossible to him, he is free to be so full of vivid enthusiasm."

She smiled again. A warm glow seemed to enfold her. "How well I know my Boy!" she said aloud; then remembered with a sudden pang that she must not call him her Boy. She had let him go. She was – very probably – going to marry the Professor. She had not – with the whole of her being – wanted him to stay, until he had had the manliness to rise up and go. Then – it had been too late. Ah, was it too late? If the Boy came back to plead once more? If once again she could hear him say: "Age is nothing! Time is nothing! Love is all!" would she not answer: "Yes, Guy. Love is all"?

The blood rushed into her sweet proud face. The name of the man she loved had come into her mind unconsciously. It had never yet – as a name for him – passed her lips. That she should unconsciously call him so in her heart, gave her another swift moment of self-revelation.

She closed the gate gently, careful not to let it bang. As she passed up the lawn, her heart stood still. It seemed to her that he must be waiting, in the shade of the mulberry-tree.

She hardly dared to look. She felt so sure he was there… Yes, she knew he was there… She felt certain the Boy had come back. He could not stay away from her on his sixth day. Had he not said he would "march round" every day? Ah, dear waiting army of Israel! Here was Jericho hastening to meet it. Why had she allowed Ann Harvey to keep her so late? Why had she gone at all, during the Boy's own time? She might have known he would come… Should she walk past the mulberry, as if making for the house, just for the joy of hearing him call "Christobel"? No, that would not be quite honest, knowing he was there; and they were always absolutely honest with one another.

She passed, breathlessly, under the drooping branches. Her cheeks glowed; her lips were parted. Her eyes shone with love and expectation.

She lifted a hanging bough, and passed beneath.

His chair was there, and hers; but they were empty. The Boy – being the Boy – had not come back.

Presently she went slowly up to the house.

A telegram lay on the hall table. She knew at once from whom it came. There was but one person who carried on a correspondence by telegraph. Reply paid was written on the envelope.

She stood quite still for a moment. Then she opened it slowly. Telegrams from the Boy gave her a delicious memory of the way he used to jump about. He would be out of his chair, and sitting at her feet, before she knew he was going to move.

She opened it slowly, turned to a window, and read it.

"How are you, dear? Please tell me. I am going to do my big fly to-morrow. I jolly well mean to break the record. Wish me luck."

She took up the reply-paid form and wrote:

"Quite well. Good luck; but please be careful, Little Boy Blue."

She hesitated a moment, before writing the playful name by which she so often called him. But his telegram was so absolutely the Boy, all over. It was best he should know nothing of "the man she loved," who had gone out at the gate. It was best he should not know what she would have called him, had he been under the mulberry just now. She was – undoubtedly – going to marry the Professor. In which case she would never call the Boy anything but "Little Boy Blue." So she put it into her telegram, as a repartee to his audacious "dear." Then she went out, and sent it off herself. It was comforting to have something, however small, to do for him.

She came in again; dressed for the evening, and dined. She was thoroughly tired; and one sentence beat itself incessantly against the mirror of her reflection, like a frightened bird with a broken wing: "He is going to do a big fly to-morrow… He is going to do a big fly to-morrow! Little Boy Blue is going to fly and break the record."

She sat in the stillness of her drawing-room, and tried to read. But between her eyes and the printed page, burned in letters of fire: "He is going to fly to-morrow."

She went down the garden to the chairs beneath the mulberry-tree. It was cooler there; but the loneliness was too fierce an agony.

She walked up and down the lawn, now bathed in silvery moonlight. "He is going to do a big fly to-morrow. He jolly well means to break the record."

She passed in, and went to her bedroom. She lay in the darkness and tried to sleep. She tried in vain. What if he got into cross-currents? What if the propeller broke? What if the steering-gear twisted? She began remembering every detail he had told herself and Mollie; when she sat listening, thinking of him as Mollie's lover, though all the while he had been her – Little Boy Blue… "Oh of course then it is all U P. – But there must be pioneers!"

At last she could bear it no longer. She lighted her candle, and rose. She went to her medicine cupboard, and did a thing she had never done before, in the whole of her healthy life. She took a sleeping draught. The draught was one of Miss Ann's; left behind at the close of a recent visit. She knew it contained chiefly bromide; harmless but effective.

She put out the light, and lay once more in darkness.

The bromide began to act.

The bird with the broken wing became less insistent.

The absent Boy drew near, and bent over, kneeling beside her.

She talked to him softly. Her voice sounded far away, and unlike her own. "Be careful, Little Boy Blue," she said. "You may jolly well – what an expression! – break the record if you like; but don't break yourself; because, if you do, you will break my heart."

The bromide was acting strongly now. The bird with the broken wing had gone. There was a strange rhythmical throbbing in her ears. It was the Boy's aeroplane; but it had started without him. She knew sleep was coming; merciful oblivion. Yet now she was too happy to wish to sleep.

The Boy drew nearer.

"Oh, Boy dear, I love you so," she whispered into the throbbing darkness; "I love you so."

"I know you do, dear," said the Boy. "It is almost unbelievable, Christobel; but I know you do."

Then she put up her arms, and drew him to her breast.

Thus the Boy – though far away – marched round.

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

AN INTERLUDE
"AS A DREAM, WHEN ONE AWAKETH"

When Miss Charteris opened her eyes, the sun was streaming into her room. The sense of having slept heavily and unnaturally lay upon her. She had not heard Martha's entry; but her blinds were up, and the tea on the tray beside her bed was still fresh and hot.

She took a cup, and the after-effects of the bromide seemed to leave her.

She dressed, and went downstairs.

On the breakfast-table, beside her plate, lay the Professor's letter. When she had poured out her coffee and buttered her toast, she opened and read it.

The letter was exactly such as she had always dreamed the Professor would write, if he ever came to the point of making her a proposal. He touched on their long friendship; on how much it had meant to them both. He said he had often hoped for the possibility of a closer tie, but had not felt justified in suggesting it, until he was in a position to offer her a suitable home and income. This was now fortunately the case; therefore he hastened to write and plead his cause, though keenly conscious of how little there was in himself calculated to call forth in a woman the affection which it was his earnest hope and desire to win. She had trusted him as a friend, an intellectual guide and comrade, during many years. If she could now bring herself to trust him in a yet more intimate relation, he would endeavour never to disappoint or fail her.

The letter was signed:

"Yours in sincere devotion, " KENRICK HARVEY."

A postscript requested to be allowed to call, at the usual hour, that afternoon, for a reply.

Miss Charteris wrote a brief note of thanks and appreciation, and gave the Professor leave to call at three.

The Professor called at three.

He knocked and rang, and fumbled long over the umbrella-stand in the hall. He seemed to be taking all the umbrellas out, and putting them back again.

At last he appeared at the door of the drawing-room, where Miss Charteris awaited him. He was very nervous. He repeated the substance of his letter, only rather less well expressed. He alluded to Miss Ann, and to the extreme happiness and pleasure to her of having Christobel as a sister. But he completely ignored, both in the letter and in conversation, Miss Ann's betrayal of Christobel's confidence. For this she was grateful to him.

As soon as the Professor, having floundered through the unusual waters of expressed sentiment, stepped out on to the high and dry path of an actual question, Miss Charteris answered that question in the affirmative, and accepted the Professor's offer.

He rose, and held her hand for a few moments, looking at her with great affection through his glasses, which did not at all impede the warmth of his regard; in fact, being powerful convex lenses, they magnified it. Then he kissed her rather awkwardly on the brow, and hurried back to his seat.

A somewhat strained silence would have followed, had not the Professor had an inspiration.

Drawing a book from his pocket, he looked at her as you look at a child for whom you have a delightful surprise in store.

"That – er – matter being satisfactorily settled, my dear Christobel," he said, "should we not find it decidedly – er – refreshing to spend an hour over our Persian translation?"

Miss Charteris agreed at once; but while the Professor read, translated, and expounded, expatiating on the interest and beauty of various passages, her mind wandered.

She found herself picturing the Boy under similar circumstances; how the Boy would have behaved during the first hour of engagement; what the Boy would have said; what the Boy would have done. She was not quite sure what the Boy would have done; she had never experienced the Boy with the curb completely off. But she suddenly remembered: "Millions, or would it be billions?" and the recollection gave her a shock of such vivid reaction, that she laughed aloud.

The Professor paused, and looked up in surprise. Then he smiled, indulgently.

"My dear – er – Christobel, this passage is not intended to be humorous," he said.

"I know it is not," replied Miss Charteris. "I beg your pardon. I laughed involuntarily."

The Professor resumed his reading.

No; she was not quite sure as to all the Boy would have done; but she knew quite well what he would have said.

And here the Boy, quite unexpectedly, took a First in classics; for what the Boy would have said would certainly have been Greek to the Professor.

After this, events followed one another so rapidly that the whole thing became dream-like to Miss Charteris. She found herself helpless in the grip of Miss Ann's iron will – up to now, carefully shrouded in Shetland and lace. At last she understood why Emma's old mother had had to die alone in a little cottage away in Northumberland; Emma, good soul, being too devoted to her mistress to ask for the necessary week, in order to go home and nurse her mother. Emma had seemed a broken woman, ever since; and Christobel understood now the impossibility of any one ever asking Miss Ann for a thing which Miss Ann had made up her mind not to grant.

She and the Professor now became puppets in Miss Ann's delicate hands. Miss Ann lay upon her couch, and pulled the wires. The Professor danced, because he had not the discernment to know he was dancing; Miss Charteris, because she had not the heart to resist. The Boy having gone out of her life, nothing seemed to matter. It was her duty to marry the Professor, and there is nothing to be gained by the postponement of duty.

But it was Miss Ann who insisted on the wedding taking place within a week. It was Miss Ann who reminded them that, the Long Vacation having just commenced, the Professor could easily be away, and there were researches connected with his Encyclopedia which it was of the utmost importance he should immediately make in the museums and libraries of Brussels. It was Miss Ann who insisted upon a special licence being obtained, and who overruled Christobel's desire to be married by her brother, the bishop. Miss Ann had become quite hysterical at the idea of the bishop being brought back from a tour he was making in Ireland, and Christobel yielded the more readily, because her brother's arrival would undoubtedly have meant Mollie's; and Mollie's presence, even if she refrained from protest and expostulation, would have brought such poignant memories of the Boy.

So it came to pass, with a queer sense of the whole thing being dream-like and unreal, that Miss Charteris – who should have had the most crowded and most popular wedding in Cambridge – found herself standing, as a bride, beside the Professor, in an ill-ventilated church, at ten o'clock in the morning, being married by an old clergyman she had never seen before, who seemed partially deaf, and partially blind, and wholly inadequate to the solemn occasion; with Miss Ann and her faithful Emma, sniffing in a pew on one side; while Jenkins breathed rather heavily in a pew, on the other. Martha had flatly refused to attend; and when Miss Charteris sent for her to bid her good-bye, Martha had appeared, apparently in her worst and most morose temper; then had suddenly broken down, and, exclaiming wildly: "'Ow about 'im?" had thrown her apron over her head, and left the room, sobbing.

"How about him? How about him?"

Each turn of the wheels reiterated the question as she drove to Shiloh to pick up Miss Ann; then on to the church where the Professor waited.

How about him? But he had left her to do that which she felt to be right, and she was doing it.

Nevertheless, Martha's wild outburst had brought the Boy very near; and he seemed with her as she walked up the church.

Her mind wandered during the reading of the exhortation. In this nightmare of a wedding she seemed to have no really important part to play. The Boy would burst in, in a minute; and a shaft of light would come with him. He would walk straight up the church to her, saying: "We have jolly well had enough of this, Christobel!" Then they would all wake up, and he would whirl her away in a motor and she would say: "Boy dear; don't exceed the speed-limit."

But the Boy did not burst in; and the Professor's hands, looking unusually large in a pair of white kid gloves, were twitching nervously, for an emphatic question was being put to him by the old clergyman, who had emerged from his hiding-place behind the Prayer-book, as soon as the exhortation was over.

The Professor said: "I will," with considerable emotion; while Miss Ann sobbed audibly into her lace pocket-handkerchief.

Christobel looked at the Professor. His outward appearance seemed greatly improved. His beard had been trimmed; his hair – what there was of it – cut. He had not once looked at her since she entered the church and took her place at his side; but she knew, if he did look, his eyes would be kind – kind, with a magnified kindness, behind the convex lenses. The Boy had asked whether she loved the Professor's mouth, eyes, and hair. What questions the amazing Boy used to ask! And she had answered —

But here a silence in the church recalled her wandering thoughts. The all-important question had been put to her. She had not heard one word of it; yet the church awaited her "I will."

The silence became alarming. This was the exact psychological moment in which the Boy should have dashed in to the rescue. But the Boy did not dash in.

Then Christobel Charteris did a thing perhaps unique in the annals of brides, but essentially characteristic of her extreme honesty.

"I am sorry," she said, in a low voice; "I did not hear the question. Will you be good enough to repeat it?"

Miss Ann, in the pew behind, gasped audibly. The old clergyman peered at her, in astonishment, over his glasses. His eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot.

Then he repeated the question slowly and deliberately, introducing a tone of reproof, which made of it a menace. Miss Charteris listened carefully to each clause and at the end she said: "I will."

Whereupon, with much fumbling, the Professor and the old clergyman between them, succeeded in finding a ring, and in placing it upon the third finger of her left hand. As they did so, her thoughts wandered again. She was back in the garden with the Boy. He had caught her left hand in both his, and kissed it; then, dividing the third finger from the others, and holding it apart with his strong brown ones, he had laid his lips upon it, with a touch of unspeakable reverence and tenderness. She understood now, why the Boy had kissed that finger separately. She looked down at it. The Professor's ring encircled it.

Then the old clergyman said: "Let us pray"; and, kneeling meekly upon her knees, Christobel Charteris prayed, with all her heart, that she might be a good wife to her old friend, the Professor.

From the church, they drove straight to the station, Miss Ann's plan for them being, that they should lunch in London, reach Folkestone in time for tea, and spend a day or two there, at a boarding-house kept by an old cronie of Miss Ann's, before crossing to Boulogne, en route for Brussels.

Christobel disliked the idea of the boarding-house, extremely. She had never, in her life, stayed at a boarding-house; moreover it seemed to her that a wedding journey called imperatively for hotels – and the best of hotels. But Miss Ann had dismissed the question with an authoritative wave of the hand, and a veiled insinuation that hotels – particularly Metropole hotels – were scarcely proper places. Dear Miss Slinker's boarding-house would be so safe and nice, and the company so congenial. But here the Professor had interposed, laying his hand gently on Christobel's: "My dear Ann, we take our congenial company with us."



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