* * * * *
The preacher was clutching the rim of the pulpit with both hands, his face had turned to a curious greenish colour, his eyes were rolled upwards till only the whites could be seen: he was no longer articulate; convulsive shudders tore at him, froth dabbled his chin. Suddenly he fell down inside the pulpit and was lost to view, all except those fearful hands, that clutched and beat at the rim. Then that too ceased, and they hung over motionless, like the hands of someone drowned....
The whole chapel was clamorous now with cries and groanings, but a comparative stillness fell as the preacher's hands gripped the edge of the pulpit again and he dragged himself erect. The sweat ran down his white face and splashed like tears on to the Bible before him.
"Who is going to stand forth and be saved?" he yelled: "Who amongst you is still a prisoner to Satan? Let him come forth and confess the Lard. I see 'ee over there"—pointing a shaking forefinger—"you'm hesitating. You can't make up your mind to give up that sin you love. Give it up, or this night thy soul shall be required of thee, and all the devils in hell shall play at ball with it in the midst of the flames."
Several men, each convinced that finger had threatened him, rose to their feet and struggled towards the penitents' pew, the tears streaming down their drawn faces, their breath rasping as though they had been running. A young girl sprang up and ripped the ribbon off the straw bonnet she was wearing; the sharp tearing sound added an alien note to the babel. Then she too, trembling violently, attained the pew and fell on her knees, the despoiled bonnet askew on her bowed head. One after another all those not already converted made their way through the encouraging throng to the fateful pew.
Annie shook Ishmael by the arm.
"Get up," she urged excitedly; "go to the pew, Ishmael. Confess the Lard, de 'ee hear? You'm got to confess the Lard."
But Ishmael, sick with fear, was crouching down, trying to shield both eyes and ears at the same time with his enfolding arms. He shrieked as Annie touched him.
"Go to wance," she commanded. "You heard what the minister said? You'll die and go to hell unless you repent. Get up and be saved ...;" and she drew him to his feet, his struggles unavailing against her.
But at sight of that sinister pew, choked with its weeping throng of ugly people, Ishmael went distraught with fear. He felt if he were put in that place of dread he would die at once. He fought Annie's grasp for a moment, screaming wildly, then collapsed in a little heap against her.
Annie thought he was dead, and that her offering, like Cain's, had proved unacceptable on high. She drew back in horror, her hands dabbing aimlessly from her own face to the sides of the pew. It was another woman, a comfortable creature who had remained very unaffected throughout the service, who gathered Ishmael up and forced her way out with him in her arms.
As she laid him on the grass outside a burst of praise came through the open door of the chapel; the scene of fear was over, and the penitents, confident of their salvation, were rejoicing together. All was peace and happiness, but Ishmael lay, his head upon the steep lap of the stranger, quite unaware that the Lord was appeased at last.
The Parson was a cassocked whirlwind in his wrath. He said little, not being a man who wasted words when a thing was done, but he acted decisively, pinning Annie by her terror to agree to a permanent alteration in affairs. As soon as Ishmael could be moved—for the fit he had had left him weak and nervous—the Parson took him to the Vicarage, and there for the next three or four years, till he went to St. Renny, Ishmael made his home.
They were, he realised much later, the happiest years of his life. Looking back on them, he grudged his unconsciousness of the fact at the time. There is nothing in the world quite like the atmosphere of an old-fashioned English parsonage—the quietness, the well-bred but simple air of it, with a tang of scholarly mustiness, the whole of a fragrance never entirely lost to those who have known it intimately. Something of the spirit of George Herbert, that homely gentleman of unassuming saintliness, the epitome of everything that was best and most characteristic in the Anglican Church, has descended on country parsonages ever since and is only now beginning to wear thin. And it was the Church of Herbert, of Jeremy Taylor, of Traherne—how above all he would have loved the works of Traherne if they had then been discovered!—that Boase represented. A Church domestic, so to speak, with priestly powers, but wielded as the common laws of a household. The widening ripples of the Oxford Movement had touched even the West with its spreading circle, but though it had his respect it left him curiously unstirred. Its doctrines were his already, perhaps with a wider interpretation here and there; and for ritual, except in so far that he liked everything done decently, he had no feeling. His sense of religion was profound but simple, as simple as daily bread. He held that it should be allowed to become part of a child as unforcedly as air or food, and he had an especial horror of what are known as heart-to-heart talks. Above all he abominated revivals, he knew too much of the greater apathy that welled in their hysterical wake. Wesley, he held, had had a mission, which is a very different thing.
Therefore the Parson's first care with Ishmael was to sweep him as bare of all thought as might be. He even stopped him when the child, still conscience-ridden, would have poured out exaggerations of misdoings, though he registered the knowledge he guessed at for future guidance. It was against Ishmael's nature to be expansive, and if he had been so on that occasion he would probably never have felt so easy with the Parson again. As it was, he began, in his secretive way, to copy Boase at all points that seemed good to him, doing things of his own initiative which he would have rebelled from being told. When the Parson got him a pony at fair-time, Ishmael soon gathered that a gentleman rode without kicking his horse in the belly or jagging at its mouth, as was the custom in that part of the world. He learnt, too, by the simple reappearance of a tin bath, flanked by an earthen pitcher of water, in his room morning after morning, that a gentleman washed all over every day. At first this bored him considerably, but after one day when the Parson took him down to the cove to bathe, and he had occasion to be ashamed of his grubby little legs and feet beside the other's shining whiteness, that too altered. Yet the Parson had said nothing, hardly given more than a look. In the same way, when he gathered that the Parson trusted him to tell the truth, and that no grievous consequences attended it, he gradually ceased to lie, though this took time, since lying with him, as with many children, had become an instinct. Gradually the whole atmosphere of the Vicarage, with its shiny mahogany furniture, its faded rep curtains, its old prints and few unassuming miniatures of the quiet country gentlefolk who were Boase's ancestors, its queer mingled smell of old books and lavender, all became part of Ishmael's consciousness.
He had a great deal of freedom, once the morning's lessons were over, for the Parson was a busy man and his parish many miles wide. At first Boase had been rather worried about these spaces in Ishmael's time, for there were no gentlefolk's children for him to play with nearer than seven or eight miles, and it was a necessary part of the great plan to keep from undue familiarity with the village boys. There was always Phoebe, but Ishmael was growing of an age to despise girls. Besides, nice soft little thing that Phoebe was, she talked with a dialect as thick as treacle. Eventually, however, it turned out that girls were to be Ishmael's chief companions, and the Parson concluded it would do him no harm to be under what is commonly supposed to be a softening influence before plunging into the stern masculinities of St. Renny. It was John-James who brought about the feminine factor in Ishmael's days, some six months after the Vicarage period had begun.
It was early spring, the first rathe-primroses were showing their milk-fair faces on the cliff, and the light-green leaves were beginning to uncrumple on the wind-wilted elders, when John-James appeared on a mission of his own at the Vicarage. There was a good deal of coming and going between the Manor and the Vicarage, for the Parson laid himself open to no charge of alienating affections, but this visit was quick with a portentousness beyond the normal. To begin with, John-James asked for Mr. Boase instead of for Ishmael, and when he was shown into the study he stood revolving his cap in his hands and some weighty thought in his brain till the Parson bade him sit down and say what it was had brought him. But John-James still stood and, his eyes fixed anxiously on the Parson, at last blurted out:
"Mr. Boase, you'm tachen Ishmael things like gentry do belong to knaw, aren't 'ee?"
"Why, yes," said Boase.
"I want to knaw if 'ee'll tache our Vassie too. Archelaus, he'em too old, and thinks on naught but gwain with females, and Tom's doen fine with Mr. Tonkin, and for me—I'm not that class. Farmen's my traade. But the maid, she'm so quick and clever, 'tes only fitty she should have her chance same as the lil'un. She's gwain to be 'ansome, white as a lily she is, and it'll be better for she if she do have things to think of like the gentry. For if Ishmael's gentry, there's no rason Vassie shoulden be. They'm the same blood after all. An' it's dangerous blood, Mr. Boase."
The Parson sat for a moment in silence while John-James shifted his feet anxiously. Mingled with the swift appreciation of the humour of himself as tutor to the arrogant Vassie was a pang of reproachful conscience.
"What does your mother say?" he temporised; "and Vassie?"
"Mother's willen, only she did say you was so took up with the lil'un you wouldn't take no account of Vassie, seeing she'm only a bastard like the rest of us. But Vassie said if you thought it was the right thing to do by her you'd do it."
Boase had as little vanity as any man, but it was pleasurably pricked by this. Also he still reproached himself.
"John-James," he began almost diffidently, "you mustn't talk like that about bastards—as though it made any difference to me. You know it isn't because of that I look after Ishmael and treat him differently; it's because he was left to me as a charge. I want to make a fine thing of him and for him to make a fine thing of Cloom.... But that includes his overcoming this barrier between him and his family; it won't be complete till he and Archelaus can meet in friendship as brothers should, without a grudge or a fear. All this bad blood needs sweetening."
"I daresay," said John-James, "but meanwhile Ishmael'll be growen up further and further from his folk."
"But you wouldn't have me not educate him, would you?" urged Boase, speaking as to a fellow-man; "you say yourself it's too late with Archelaus. It always was; he hated me from Ishmael's birth."
"That's right enough," agreed John-James; "it's only Vassie you can help. And helpen her will help your plan too, won't it? For it'll make one of his own kind in his family. And she's gwain to be 'ansome, she is."
"You're quite right, John-James, and I'm obliged to you for the suggestion. I don't think I can supply an education much good to a young lady, but we'll see what can be done."
"Mother says," mumbled John-James, "that happen later Vassie could go to what they do call a boarding school to Plymouth church town, seen' as the money won't be Ishmael's yet awhile.... Only she must learn to cipher and make nadlework flowers afore go, or the other maids'll mock at she."
"I can teach the ciphering but not the needlework flowers, I fear," said the Parson, laughing; "my housekeeper will have to be called in over that. Well, you tell Vassie to be here by nine in the morning and she shall begin her education. Whether she sticks to it is her own affair."
"She'll stick to it," prophesied John-James. "She'm terrible proud, is Vassie."
That was how it came about that Vassilissa Beggoe, half pouting defiance, half eager, began to pull herself out of the slough into which her race had slipped. There were difficulties perpetually arising—Ishmael had to be snubbed for sneering at her abysmal ignorance; and a course more adapted to her needs and temperament than the classic one the Parson was unfolding before the boy had to be arrived at; and her own recurring fits of suspicion and obstinacy had to be overcome. The intimacy between brother and sister did not deepen perceptibly, for the three years between them made too wide a gulf at that period in life, and to counter Ishmael's scorn of her as a girl and far more ignorant than himself, was her scorn of him as younger, less daring, much less swift of apprehension, though keener of application. Each began to have a certain respect for the other, nevertheless—she in his superiority over the other boys she knew, he in her splendour that made the other boys' sisters seem dim. These two were laying the foundations for possible intimacy later on, though there was too much against it now.
The Parson felt it as a matter for self-reproach that he never became really fond of Vassie; her hardness, and a certain set determination about her that was rather fine as well, blinded him to her good points. She was certainly unlovable at that period, but she and the Parson had natures which would mutually fail to respond at the best of times. Being what he was, this made him all the more careful to do all he could for her, but he never rejoiced in her really quick intellect as he did in the slow sensitive one of Ishmael, or even in the kittenish superficiality of Phoebe's.
For the miller had no rest when he heard what was going on at the Vicarage of a morning until his Phoebe was reaping equal benefits, or benefits that would have been equal had Phoebe the temperament to avail herself of them. If the Parson had not possessed a natural genius for teaching, even his patience would never have survived those schoolroom struggles with three children of differing ages and capacities. But he was interested in Vassie's determination to improve herself, and of little Phoebe he was fond in the way one cannot help being fond of some soft confiding little animal that rubs up against one.
The miller built much on those few years of childish friendship during which he told himself his Phoebe too was learning to be as good as anyone else, but the Parson had no fears on that score. Ishmael was going, as he saw things, to be a man of wider ideas than ever little facile Phoebe, with her superficial quickness in acquiring anything "lady-like," would be able to fill.
Meanwhile, the Parson told Ishmael, in language that made everything seem clean and wonderful, as much as he thought wise of the mysteries which had perplexed him and Jacka's John-Willy over the snail. The ideals Ishmael gradually absorbed during these years made the thought of the furtive conversations with John-Willy seem hateful, and with their swift acquisitiveness of values both little girls appreciated that he would be superior to them if they indulged in any of the vulgarities most children are apt to fall into at one period, harmless enough in fact, but not cleansing to the mind. Therefore each of the three affected the other two in some way, and the pattern of Ishmael's life, though so essentially isolated as everyone's must be in greater or less measure, was intermingled at many of its edges with those of the two girls'. But always it was the Parson who held his heart as far as any human entity could be said to do so. For it was still the world of things and ideas which filled the round of his horizon most for Ishmael, and in that world the thought of his great trust held ever-strengthening place.
One great cause for relief he had, which came upon him soon after the settlement of the scholastic arrangement at the Vicarage, and that was the departure of Archelaus, who enlisted and went to the Crimea. Later he was wounded and discharged, but even then he did not come home, but went to the goldfields of New South Wales. The great fever of that rush was on, and, any form of mining being in a Cornishman's blood, there were many that went from West Penwith alone. The malignant presence of Archelaus withdrawn, though he did not understand the malignancy, Ishmael felt lighter, freer. Tom he hardly ever saw, and the girls were under dire penalties from the Parson never to hint to Ishmael the true reason of the domestic complications of Cloom. That Boase reserved for himself, as a difficult telling, which Ishmael might take hardly, and for which he was to be well fortified in the years of childhood.
Long after, on looking back, Ishmael saw better the whole atmosphere of those years from eight to twelve than he did when in the midst of them. Golden summers, when he spent whole days out on the cliff or moor with the Parson, their specimen cases at their backs; ruddy autumns when the peewits cried in the dappled sky and the blackberries were thick on the marsh; grey winters when the rain and mist blotted the world out, and he and the Parson sat by a glowing fire of wreckage, the Parson reading aloud from Jorrocks or Pickwick, or the entrancing tales of Captain Marryat, and later, for more solid matter, Grote's "History of Greece," its democratic inferences counterbalanced by "Sartor Resartus," whose thunderous sentences enthralled Ishmael, if their purport was yet beyond him; wonderful pale springs when the sunshine and the blood in his veins were both like golden wine. So the time went, and it mostly belonged to himself and his dreams, with even the Parson more unconsciously felt than actively realised, and with the two girls still more upon the fringe, though it was true there were splendid games, such as Cavaliers and Roundheads, which could not be played by himself. For this and kindred affairs Vassie and Phoebe were of great use, though Phoebe cried if she had to be a Roundhead too often out of her turn. Still, she was a good little thing, but when the fateful date arrived which was to see the journey to St. Renny, Ishmael had no pang at leaving her or anyone else. He was not a shy boy, and felt only intense interest at the thought of what lay before him. For the journey in a railway train was alone enough to set the blood thrilling—it was a thing that no one whom Ishmael knew, excepting Parson Boase, had ever undertaken. It was only a matter of five years since the West Cornwall Railway from Truro Road to Penzance had been opened. The same year the great Duke had died, but the opening of the railway, with the mayor and all the magistrates and the volunteer band in attendance, had made far the greater stir in West Penwith. Iron Dukes were intangible creatures compared with iron engines, although the Parson had preached about the former and seemed to think, as some parishioners said, that it might have been the Almighty Himself who had passed away. Wellington had gone, but the railway had come—therein lay the difference; and Ishmael swelled with pride as he talked casually to Phoebe of the experience before him.
The miller lent his trap for the drive into Penzance, for, incredible as it may seem, there was still hardly a cart in the countryside, all the carrying of turf, furze, and produce being done on donkeys' back, and thus it came about that Phoebe came too to see him off. She held her round softly-tinted face, with the mouse-coloured ringlets falling away from it, up to his in the railway station as he prepared to climb to his place in the pumpkin-shaped compartment. He ensured a tear-wet pillow for her that night by merely shaking her hand at the full length of a rigid arm.
For most children the first day at school is a memorable landmark; for Ishmael it was the more so because all his life hitherto he had lived in one atmosphere, without the little voyagings and visitings in which more happily-placed children are able to indulge. The change to St. Renny, although in the same county, was a great one, for whereas Cloom lay on the wind-swept promontory where only occasional folds in the land could give some hint of what gentler-nurtured pastures might be like, the whole little grey town of St. Renny seemed embowered in foliage that did not indeed encroach upon its actual ways, but that gave the rolling slopes of its guarding hills a richness of dark green that Ishmael had never imagined trees could hold. The life itself bore a very similar analogy to that he had led hitherto, not because the school was at all luxurious or riotous, but because his life, even at the Vicarage, had been of an unusual austerity. This new world held at once greater restrictions and more liberty of spirit, for at school every boy works out his own salvation or the reverse. Not being shy, Ishmael had no inner terrors to overcome—only a feeling for self-defence which was the outcome of his anomalous position. The Parson hoped and thought there would be no disagreeables about that at St. Renny; the headmaster, of course, knew of it, but of the boys, those adepts at torture, none happened to be from the furthest West. For St. Renny still bore the reputation it had attained under a famous headmaster, when the best known of West Country novelists had been a scholar there, and parents from right up the country, even from London itself, if they had the blood of Devon or Cornwall in their veins, sent their sons to grey St. Renny. It was with a London boy, son of a one-time Plymouth merchant who had become an alderman and a shining light of Bloomsbury, that Ishmael's fortunes were to be most closely linked.
In spite of his pose of self-sufficiency—so ingrained as to deceive himself—Ishmael's heart beat fast as he followed the Parson through the arched doorway of grey granite that was to open so often for him in the years to follow. He was filled with an inarticulate wonder at the knowledge that it was to be so, and it occurred to him for the first time—for children, like animals, accept what comes to them very naturally—that it was odd one could be so completely disposed of by grown-up people, even for one's undoubted good....
Of the interview with the headmaster, so square of jowl and brow and yet so kindly, Ishmael remembered little in after years; for it became blurred by all he grew to know of "Old Tring" during the long though intermittent association of school. Old Tring rang a bell, after a gruff sentence of welcome, and, apparently as glad as Ishmael for an excuse to part, told him he should be shown round by one Killigrew. Old Tring added that he, Ishmael Ruan, would be sure to like Killigrew. Ishmael doubted this; somehow, waiting there in that still room, whose tranquillity seemed so much of its essence as to be more than a mere absence of noise, waiting and gazing at the strip of sunlit High Street that seemed lambent by contrast with the dimness within, Ishmael conceived a dislike to Killigrew. The name sounded brisk, brutal even; Ishmael was unaware that it was the fact that he had been told he would like Killigrew which awaked his antagonism. Unconsciously he resented that this old man should take advantage of knowing more of books to think that therefore he knew what he, Ishmael, would and would not like.
They all three waited; the Parson ran a finger along the lines of calf-bound books, then paused, Old Tring at his elbow. Ishmael was forgotten, isolated in himself, and, without warning, in the irrational way of such phases, he was overwhelmed by one of those strange periods in which, though actually but a second or so, time seems to hold its breath and the consciousness, muffled by some overwhelming dimness, is arrested and stands alone, on a pin-point of eternity, without past or future. It seemed to him that nothing would ever move again in the dim room, where for this fraction of a second everything was motionless except the dust motes that danced in the beam slanting through the low window, wreathing this way and that like steam within the strip of brightness, but ceasing to be visible at the edge as sharply as though they ceased to exist—as though an impalpable line ruled in the air would not allow the twisting coils to pass beyond, even when the pattern demanded it. Ishmael stared at this aerial path of living light, his mind hypnotised by it, and the remainder of the room by its contrasting density seemed to fall away from him; out of a great distance came the Parson's voice saying, "So you've got a first edition of the Antiquities...." Followed the soft rubbing sound of one smooth book being drawn out from between its companions, then the crisper noise of large pages being turned.
The moment, which had seemed so intensely the present to Ishmael that during it he had thought it could never cease to be, reeled and sank into the past, leaving him with the feeling that time was once more in motion, like a vast clock whose pendulum has stopped for one beat, only to resume its swing again. At once it became possible that everything should go on, the idea of the incursion of the boy Killigrew ceased to be wildly chimerical, and with this acceptance of it Killigrew himself was in the room.
The vibrant path was no longer bright to the shutting-off of all else, material and mental; the Parson looked up from his first edition; Old Tring's hand, advancing, came into the strip of light, and seemed to spring to life, swelled to huge dimensions, became of a glowing whiteness. Killigrew, red-headed, freckled, standing with an air of surly self-protection, suddenly raised his light lashes to give the sweetest smile Ishmael had ever seen. Always, even in moments of irritation, it was to remain with him as illuminative of Killigrew—that peculiar radiant smile which carried him so softly, if not triumphantly, through life. It would have been a disgusting smile if it had been calculated, even self-conscious; as it was, it made of Killigrew a creature subtly apart, though for no deeper reason.
Old Tring said: "Killigrew, this is Ruan, who has come from Bolerium, or, as you would vulgarly term it, Land's End. Take him and show him the school, but bring him back to have tea with his guardian." The two boys went out and as he was shutting the door Ishmael, who had the woodland hearing of a little animal, caught some low-toned words of the Parson's: "... makings of a fine spirit. I assure you, Tring ..." That was himself, Ishmael Ruan, whom they were speaking of. "A fine spirit ..."; the phrase pricked his imagination—he swelled to it. He glanced at Killigrew, who was whistling in rosy unconsciousness of proximity to any spirit at all, and suddenly felt enormously relieved that the other boy had not heard, aware, by the new angle to which he was already responding, that Killigrew would have been disgusted rather than impressed. Once in the courtyard, the freemasonry of young things released from the pressure of grown-ups drew their eyes together. Unconsciously Ishmael thrust his hands into the trouser pockets of his new serge suit, in imitation of Killigrew, whose swagger was really a thing inimitable. Something stirred in Ishmael which had hitherto been unknown to him; it was not love, which in greater or lesser degree he already knew—for he was an affectionate boy in his inarticulate way—it was not merely an impulse for friendship; that would have been no alien thing. It was the beginning of that relationship which only masculine creatures ever really know, a relationship which is intimate without ever making inroads on privacy; full of pleasure in companionship without any feeling of a blank when apart; where love cannot be said to exist, and yet of which, if the irrevocableness of death remove one of the two, there remains to the other a void that is felt recurrently for the rest of his life whenever anything arises which that other person alone could have felt and appreciated in quite the same way. It was no David and Jonathan friendship which grew between Ishmael and Killigrew such as may sometimes be found among boys, but it was an intimacy that, in its aloof way, was to add something to the pattern of their lives that neither would have found without it.
In after years, if Ishmael had examined into the thing, which he never did, he would have seen that it was because, widely different as their two natures were, each had a side that corresponded. For everyone has a part of him, nearly always the larger, which is in relation with the general run of the world, and also a part which is out of key with it. Neither is more real than the other, though one is always bigger and more insistent than the other, and in the relative proportions lies every possibility. It was those parts of them which were out of key with the ordinary acceptances that were attuned in Ishmael and Killigrew, though neither was as yet aware they had such aspects, far less in what measure. On that first afternoon and for several days afterwards they were merely unthinkingly aware of a blind tolerance for each other that rose more nearly to a warm respect over the matter of Killigrew's badger.
This attractive though violent animal lurked in a hutch artfully concealed between the roof and the rafters at the far end of the dormitory where Killigrew slept. A trap door gave admission to the dim three-cornered place where heads had to be bowed for fear of the beams and voices and footsteps tuned down as low as possible lest someone in authority should overhear. For the badger was contraband, or so its owner, for greater glory, chose to assume, though as a matter of fact it was more than likely had permission been asked to keep the beast it would have been accorded, for St. Renny had its reputation as the great naturalists' school to keep up. Half the glamour surrounding the savage pet would have vanished, however, and the secret was jealously guarded, the badger himself, by his unconquerable stench, being the only person likely to give it away. Luckily the hutch was not directly over the dormitory, but right at the angle of the roof, where a low window, kept always open by Killigrew, allowed the worst of the smell to be wafted away. The increasing size of the badger and its consequent fierceness were likely to make its ultimate retention impossible; even now, a mere ball of striped fluff, it bit savagely whenever it was handled.
Badgers, which are often erroneously supposed to be nearly extinct in England, swarm over Cornwall, so that Killigrew's specimen did not enjoy any special distinction as a rarity, save in its capacity as a "pet." They are, however, very difficult to catch, being strong and cunning and armed with terrific teeth and claws, and Killigrew was passionately attached to his unyielding prisoner, not so much for its own sake as for what it represented for him—outlawry, romance, the touch of the wild which glorified life. Not on the first day was Ishmael accounted worthy, or even safe, as a repository for this secret, but when Killigrew did show it him, Ishmael rose in importance through his intimate knowledge of badgers and their ways.
"Wouldn't He let you keep it if He knew?" asked Ishmael, when, finger and thumb round its neck and another finger firmly gripping under a forepaw, he had held and admired the spitting animal.
"Rather not. We're not allowed to keep anything, though they make us sweat across the moor what they call 'observing the animal creation in its own haunts.' They like one to grind over beastesses and butterflies and suchlike."
"I know a lot about them," boasted Ishmael.
"Then you'd better keep your mouth shut about it, that's all I can say, or the fellows will think you're a prig. It was all right when it was started because the fellows were keen on it themselves, but then the masters took it up, and of course we had to drop it. We're off bugs in this shop."
Ishmael digested in silence the profundity of the point of view thus presented to him, and, according to his habit, quickly made it part of his practice. For his first weeks at school he kept very silent, absorbing its traditions and the unwritten laws made by the boys themselves, on the nice observance of which hung respect and popularity.
The Grammar School of St. Renny was an old-fashioned affair even for those days, but it had a certain name in a quiet way. It was run on classical lines, Greek and Latin being considered the only two subjects worth a gentleman's attention. Botany and entomology were the unofficial subjects that had won the school its name, but Ishmael soon found that to show any keenness for these two pursuits was to class yourself a prig. The robuster natures preferred rod and line, or line only, in the waters of Bolowen Pool to any dalliance with stink-pots and specimen cases. Like far greater schools, it was really run by the traditions evolved by the boys. There were certain things that were the thing and certain other things that were not the thing, and these varied occasionally. One term you simply had to wear a dark blue-and-white tie for going into the town and bear's grease your hair; another term a certain slovenliness in dress was the thing. You dismissed all womenkind as trivial and useless, but you were in love with the doctor's daughter, a stately, full-blown damsel who floated, so to speak, up the church upon the swaying bubble of her crinoline every Sunday morning, and sat, sunk to the waist in the swelling waves of silk, worshipped by a row of eyes from the school pew.
During the Sunday promenade around the churchyard—an unchanging ritual—you manoeuvred to be the one of the couple passing her as she came up the short path that bisected the circular one where you were marching. The two boys who were leading had the advantage of being able to set the pace more or less, but often they miscalculated the time of her appearance, and then some other couple, by a judicious lagging for a moment or a sudden quickening, achieved the meeting that after all was no more than a furtive interchange of glances, supercilious or almost-smiling on her part, according to her mood and the boy that encountered it. None of the boys ever met the damsel in any other way, except sometimes at a select party; but this adoration was a cult, though a purely academic one, so to speak. The true goddess of the school was far otherwise, as Ishmael was to find.
Another feature of life at St. Renny was the weekly market-day. It was forbidden to go into the town, it being placed out of bounds for the occasion, and therefore to slip out and drink cider at the corner shop and come back with your pockets stuffed with buns and solid country sweets of gaudy hues was a deed that placed you high in the respect of your fellows. Ishmael achieved this once as a matter of form, and then, having no real interest in it, turned his attention to other matters. On ordinary days the boys had a very real freedom, only limited by the hour at which they must return, and Ishmael and Killigrew nearly always took their rods and spent the half-holidays at Bolowen Pool, rarely catching anything, for the trout were abnormally shy; but Ishmael at least had the true fisherman's temperament, and was content to sit all day at one end of a rod and line even without a fish at the other. As for Killigrew, he was soon following where Ishmael led, and would have gone bug-hunting with him had he so decreed, though he felt relieved that Ishmael had cast such things aside.
Ishmael was casting aside much these days. He was at that expanding age which accepts what it is taught as good, but thinks it fine to throw it over. Later comes the age of thinking for oneself and concluding that whatever one has been taught is bad. Curiously enough the outward result of the two states is the same. Only later comes the period of judicious sifting, and by then characteristics, tastes, habits, have unwittingly formed such bias that true poise is almost unattainable. Ishmael's root-ideas were unchanged, but he conformed to all the fads of the school, even, as he became more of a personage, adding to them, for his inborn dread of ridicule prevented him from being an iconoclast and his bent for dominance made some action, one way or the other, necessary. The Parson sank more and more into the background, but there came over the rim of his world a new figure that, oddly enough, filled much the same place.
On that first night at school, when the Parson had gone back home and Ishmael lay in a narrow little bed, one of ten such, in the darkened dormitory, he shed no tears for the Parson, or for his old companions, nor yet for the strangeness of the new world where he might, in the reaction from the first excitement, have been feeling lonely. He was too solidly set on getting all that was possible out of his fresh life. But in his most curious searchings into the likely future as he lay that night for an hour or so upon a wakeful pillow, he did not picture anything as delightful as, in after years, he was to realise Hilaria Eliot had been for those boys who at the time so casually and unthinkingly enjoyed her wayward companionship.
"Point the toe, if you please young gentlemen; slide well forward and bow to your partner from the waist.... Ruan, you have the air of a poker trying to be graceful. Watch Killigrew and do as he does. Now, all together please ..."; and the row of self-conscious boys bowed, gloved hands upon severely jacketed chests, while as many little girls, aware of doing the thing correctly and of not looking fools in the doing of it, spread white tarletan skirts in starchy semi-circles by way of reply.
It was the weekly dancing class, when Mr. Pierre Sebastian Eliot, who on other days taught French at the Grammar School, undertook to instruct the boys in what he referred to as "the divine art of Terpsichore," a habit which had earned for himself the simple nickname of "Terps." The class was held in a spacious room used for balls, both subscription and private, at the "George" Inn, and to it came not only those Grammar School boys whose parents paid for this polite "extra," but also the maidens from the gentle families of St. Renny and the neighbourhood.
Ishmael was dancing opposite Hilaria Eliot, and his enjoyment of it lay in knowing that Killigrew, who had basely tried to trip him up shortly before, was suffering pangs of envy. After some four years of knowing her, Killigrew was suddenly in love with Miss Eliot and didn't mind who knew it. In fact, to be accurate, Killigrew's emotion was chiefly based on a desire to be different from the rest of his world, and what was the good of being different unless people knew it?
Thus Killigrew—to Ishmael, who was growing vaguely aware of a difference from his fellows that he could not remedy, the argument would have had no force. Killigrew was neither of those St. Rennyites who despised girls, nor of those who held the cult of the doctor's daughter, that dizzy exemplar of fashion, nor of those others—a small band these latter, made up of the best boys in the school, little and big—who admired and liked Hilaria as a "good sort." Killigrew was determined to be different, and so, like Burns, "battered" himself into love. If Ishmael had been disposed to feel a tender sentiment for her himself, he could not have cherished it with any comfort, being already cast by Killigrew for the confidant of passion. Thus it came about that, though in after years those stolen meetings between Hilaria and a ring of boys would flash into his memory as being romance in essence, at the time they held no more thrill for him than might be imparted by some new novel—contraband in the perpetual war against grown-ups—that she would bring to read aloud to them in some hollow of the moor. Always it was from the angle of the third person—that most comfortable of view-points—that he saw her. Only later by the light that lingered round her ways did he know how she had stood for beauty.
Now, as he watched her sway and dip before him, it only struck him that she differed from the little misses on her either hand, but quite how, except that he would have said she was jollier, more like a boy, he couldn't have told. That indeed, translated from boy-like into unmaidenly, was the town's chief complaint against her, or primarily against her father. Mr. Eliot's position was not an easy one, and he did nothing to make it easier. For he was half French, his mother having been brought over as a little girl at the time of the Terror. There were people still alive in the 'fifties and 'sixties who remembered the Napoleonic wars and the shadow cast by that giant figure upon the world; indeed, so slowly did thought move down in the far West that it might almost have been said that St. Renny was just beginning to realise the wars, and rather resented the fact that English and French had since fought side by side in the Crimea. Also the vagaries of Napoleon III. kept England in a perpetual state of distrust, in spite of the championship of Lord Palmerston, then in his second Ministry. Mothers still frighted their babes with the name of Boney, and the French were still the hereditary enemies of all good Cornishmen, so many of whom had gone to man the fleet that won at Trafalgar. The obscure feeling of distrust that always stirs in the lower classes of remote districts at anything alien did not, of course, extend to the educated people, but Mr. Eliot, being poor and very eccentric, refused such championship from his equals as might have been his.
He lived with his daughter and an old housekeeper in a little cottage on the outskirts of the town, and earned his living by teaching at the Grammar School and giving private lessons in French, dancing, fencing, and physical culture generally. It was this latter that caused him to be looked on with so much suspicion as an eccentric. He actually made his daughter, attired in a skirt that only reached to her knees, perform inelegant feats on parallel bars and ladders, while he was wont to boast that she could out-fence any boy at the school. She was an expert swimmer too, and there were rumours, that at summer bathing excursions she wore a somewhat similar garment to that of the gymnasium, instead of one of those long serge gowns reaching to the ankles that ladies were wont to disport themselves in amidst the surf—gowns in which it was impossible to do anything but bob up and down at the end of a rope.
It was curious that a man who was half a Frenchman should have been the one to have such advanced ideas on female education, but then Mr. Eliot was the son of a refugee, which says much. For those French aristocrats, who never turned hand to a task in their lives till the Revolution, lived to learn very differently after their flight. The farm and the shop taught what the court had failed to impart, and the blood that despite folly directs so truly in moments of extremity did not fail them. The children who, had the course of events never been ruffled, would have grown up in a vicious and futile court, were forced to practise economies and learn at first hand the dignity of labour. With those families who returned to the increasing viciousness which culminated under Napoleon III. the lesson may not always have been lasting, but for those who, like the forbears of Mr. Eliot, allied themselves with their English hosts, and remained where they were, the hard life of struggle, if the alliance had not been rich, continued the new philosophy. Added to all this normal cause, Hilaria's father was certainly an original, or rather one of those people considered so because they are ahead of their time and condemned to misunderstanding in consequence.
None of it mattered to Mr. Eliot, who drifted about the world in a daze that, had it been a happy one, would have made him an enviable man. As it was, his invincible habit of over-sensitive gloom robbed him of the detachment which is the most truly enviable of all the gifts of the gods. He was a little man, beautifully made, with the high nose, the tossed-back hair, the piercing look of the man at once prejudiced and nervous. He lived wrapt in himself, and saw in his daughter more his own hope in old age than a creature wonderful in her youth and vitality for her own ends. When the crude heartlessness of the boys racked him or the well-meaning advances of the gentry offended his alert vanity, it was to Hilaria that he would turn in thoughts and words to attain that measure of approbation without which his own self-love would have languished of inanition. It was Hilaria who healed his hurts, though with increasing difficulty. For there is little gulf, and that easily bridged, between the very young child and the old man, but between the adolescent and the old it is wide and deep. And she was eager where he was retiring, confident where he was suspicious. With what of pity, lovely but half-patronising too, did she solace him!... Between them lay the gulf not only of a generation but of a different habit of thought, of alien tastes, which not all his passionate clutching or her impatient tenderness could bridge for more than a few moments of clinging together against the world. None of this did he realise, neither did Hilaria, so they were spared much unhappiness, merely fretting blindly without knowing why.
Hilaria was not a beauty, though she would be considered more nearly so now than then, when a high forehead and well-sleeked hair were almost necessities of life. Her low brow—truly Greek in its straightness and the crisp ripple of her hair around it—was not in favour at that time. The hair, which was of a dull ashen brown, was strained back tightly and confined by a round comb. Her eyebrows, too straight for the period and too thick, nearly met above the short, tip-tilted nose, freckled as a plover's egg, and that at a time when no well brought-up damsel ventured forth in the sun's rays without veil or parasol. Her face was deficient in modelling, being one of those subtly concave faces not without a fascination of their own, with an egg-like curve of prominent delicately-square chin. Her mouth, too large, opened very beautifully when she laughed over square thickly-white teeth. Her eyes were small and of no particular colour, though bright with a birdlike shining between the thick short lashes of a neutral brown. She had a something boyish in poise and action that really made her charm, but that also set her hopelessly out of her time. It was impossible to imagine Hilaria happy in a crinoline, and she fought them fiercely, yet crinolines were in full flower, and the one disported by the doctor's daughter of a Sunday was the admiration and envy of the feminine members of the town. "I should feel I was in a cage," quoth Hilaria at the suggestion that she should trammel her long legs in such a contraption—unconsciously hitting on the essential reason for the allure of crinolines. She had to wear one now for dancing-class, as it made movement and spacing so different; but other times she went her wilful way, short nose in air, encouraged by the complacence of her father, who had no more knowledge of what the country people called her "goings-on" than if he had lived in an alien clime.
Hilaria was a hoyden. She despised crinolines, girls, Macassar oil, sewing, and deportment. She adored walking, fishing, boys, and climbing trees. She did outrageous things with a genuine innocence that made the most sensual of the boys careful not to take advantage of her in any bad way. That she climbed out of her bedroom window at night to go and meet some three of the boys from the Grammar School and with them test the wishing pool on the moor on Midsummer Eve was proof of all these things, and yet what a scandal it made in St. Renny when the fact leaked out!...
Hilaria was at present going through a phase of "trying to be good," as the bishop was coming to hold a confirmation, and only those accounted worthy were to be confirmed. Her goodness was of that healthy elastic kind natural to children, which never prevents them doing what they wish, because they instinctively keep it in a compartment to itself. There was no small curiosity about the mysterious rite amongst the boys who were her especial friends, and it had become rather a point of honour to be "done" together. Consequently Hilaria looked very demure as she went through her steps with the mechanical ease of long practice and the supple grace that was her own and yet had the adorable awkwardness of her age in it. She was nearly sixteen, several months younger than Ishmael, who was now just over that age, and who, owing to the reputation for seriousness his secretiveness had earned for him, was one of the candidates undergoing preparation with Old Tring. He had apparently outgrown his fits of unbalanced talkativeness, and had become, with the difficult years, one of those boys who speak with almost comical rarity, and then with unemotional gruffness. This power of reticence never fails to win respect, if of a half-irritated, half-resentful order, and Ishmael held a certain position in the school. Also as the ward of a parson he was supposed to "be good" and know about such things as confirmations. As a matter of fact, he considered his own Tractarian principles, rigidly inculcated by Boase, as superior to the mild evangelical platitudes of Old Tring, and plumed himself accordingly. He was just at that dangerous age, reached somewhat later in the healthy normalities of school than it would have been had he stayed eating his own thoughts at Cloom, when religion either falls away entirely from a boy or flares up into a sudden vitality. Ishmael's blood ran with too much of inherited aptitude for prayer for the former pitfall to ensnare him, but the latter yawned beside him now and he thrilled to its attractions. Sliding his stout, shiny shoe back and forth with the stiff attempt at elegance so deprecated by Mr. Eliot, he asked himself whether the Lord could really countenance such frivolity. It was difficult to think of the things of the soul while so employed, while on the moor, or by Bolowen Pool the thoughts came as naturally as birds. Spring was in his blood and he called it faith, as later he would call it love.
Spring was in the low-browed room at the "George," pouring in at the long windows and spilling in pools of hazy yellow upon the polished boards. Spring was in the old garden outside, touching the warm tangle of gillyflowers to fire, transmuting the pallor of the narcissus to light itself, making the very shadows more luminous than a winter's shining. The freakish sun, lit this and left that, after its habit, for nowhere is more mysterious alchemy than the mixing of sun and shadow in the spaces of the air. Ishmael's keen eyes could see how a spider's thread, woven from one tall plant to another, and wavering ever so delicately in the faint breeze, was one moment lit here and there to a line of pure light that merged into nothingness and gleamed out again, while a moment later it might have vanished entirely or else shine its length. The midges, dancing in mid-air, were living sun-motes for one flash, then were swallowed up as suddenly as though they had slipped through into the fourth dimension. A pair of white butterflies, pearly-grey or golden as they fluttered in and out of those invisible chambers of the air that held sun or shade, chased each other in futile circles; the flower-heads nodded in and out of the brightness; and in the room the white girls dipped into the Danaean showers and back through the dimness, coloured like the butterflies by the swift transitions, swaying like the blossoms. If not only the spacing of the light but also the waves of movements could have flashed out visibly like the spider's threads the garden and the room would have shown full of the lovely curves.
And Ishmael felt the warm dazzle of the light and thought of the moor and how in another half-hour or so the shadows would be long beside the pool and the trout beginning to rise at their supper, and of how he would like to be a holy hermit and live alone there with a dog and a gun and a rod and God; while Killigrew was divided between trying to signal a question to Hilaria and wishing he could paint the dim room with its splashes of sun and wondering what colours he could get that would be pure enough; and Hilaria was wishing Ishmael would give her a chance to whisper to him the news she was burning to impart and not merely stare at her and everything else with that blank gaze that always seemed to go through her to the wall beyond. And most of the boys itched to get out for an hour or so before supper, while the little girls thoroughly enjoyed themselves and Mr. Eliot wished the whole lot of them, or himself, elsewhere. At last the wheezy piano sounded its last note, the faded lady who once a week thumped it for an hour and the sum of two-and-sixpence gathered her shawl about her and tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her pointed chin: the little girls were also enshawled by prim figures who now materialised from the shadowy seats where they had waited for this moment; and the boys, with a hurried touching of caps to Mr. Eliot, went clattering out through the flagged and panelled passage into the High Street. Hilaria, by the door, caught Ishmael's sleeve as he rose from changing his shoes—he was always the last when a fussy quickness was in question—and, ignoring the hovering Killigrew, said in her low husky voice:
"Tell them I can be on the moor in half an hour, will you? I must go and take off this beastly thing first ..." She kicked a protesting leg against the framework of her crinoline, that shot out in front of her alarmingly.
"Tell who?" asked Ishmael, densely.
"All of them, of course. Killigrew and Moss minor and the Polkinghornes and Carminow—not Doughty; I didn't like him last time—I don't know why ..." She broke off and bent forward, her tones took on a thrill; "I've got it," she announced.
"The new number of 'The Woman in White'? Oh, Hilaria!..."
"It wasn't easy, I can tell you, and we shall have to hurry with it, but it's in my shoe-bag now."
"Must you go home and change? It'll give us so little time. It's dark at eight, and we have to be in to supper then, anyway."
Hilaria hesitated, still slightly leaning forward like a great full-petalled blossom heavy with approaching night.
"I suppose I could manage.... Papa goes on to give a French lesson before he comes home.... It would be awful if it tore though.... All right, I'll risk it, but you'll all have to simply lug me over the stiles. Fancy if I stuck in one all night!" Her laugh, husky as her voice, gurgled out, and Mr. Eliot looked up from the packet of books he was sorting at the end of the room.
"Hilaria!" he said, half sharply, half plaintively. She swung round at him with that beautiful sway only a crinoline can give, checking the movement abruptly so that the full sphere of muslin went surging back for another half-turn while her body stayed rigid.
"Yes, Papa, I am ready. Can't you find all your right books?" And with this adroit carrying of the war into enemy's country she deflected Mr. Eliot's interest back upon himself, at no time a difficult task.
A few minutes later, having stopped to spend her week's pocket-money—only threepence—on a paper twist full of jumbles, she might have been seen going in the direction of home, walking, for her, sedately, and looking very lady-like with the important bulk of the crinoline swelling out the mantle that made all women, from behind, seem at least fifty. A few people who saw her said to themselves that Eliot's maid seemed to be growing up at last, but they did not see her when, arrived at the stile she would have passed severely by had she been going home, she flung her shoebag over it and, boldly tilting up the cumbrous hoops, scrambled over it herself, with a flashing display of frilled cambric trousers and white legs terminating in kid boots.
THE PLACE ON THE MOOR
The nearest way to the hollow on the moor that Hilaria had made her own was a tiny track so overgrown with brambles and gorse as hardly to be worthy the name, and on this particular evening, out of care for her strange garb, she took a path which curved with some semblance of smoothness in a wider arc. Thus Ishmael and Killigrew, who had got away in advance of the others of the "Ring," came to the hollow before her and, climbing up behind it, flung themselves on a boulder where they could watch all approaches. It was a wonderful place, that which Hilaria's feminine instinct for the right atmosphere had led her to choose. The moor sloped slightly for a mile or so below it, and it was not so much a genuine hollow as made to seem like one by the semi-circle of huge boulders that backed it. Set below and almost within them, the curving ground showed a more vivid green than the rest of the moor, as of some elfin lawn held in an ancient enchantment by the hoar rocks. They towered above, piled on and against each other as though flung by freakish gods; from the fissures sprang wind-wilted thorns, now in young leaf of a pure rich green, with thickly-clustered buds just breaking into a dense snow of blossom. Periwinkles trailed down upon the turf, and the closely set stonecrop made a reddish bloom on the lower boulders, amidst bronze-hued moss, pale fragile scales of lichen, and glossy leaved fibrous-rooted ivy, that all went to pattern their sullen grey with delicate arabesques. The strongest note of colour was in the wild hyacinths, that, where the earth had been disturbed at some time and so given them a chance, made drifts of a deep blue that seemed almost purple where they came against the paler azure of the sky.
The boys climbed to the flat top of the highest boulder, where the gorse-bushes, some still darkly green, some breaking into yellow flame, thrust their strong clumps from the rocky soil to stretch in a level sea, inset with tracts of heath and bracken, for miles around. The whole arc of the sky, the whole circle of the world's rim, lay bare to the eye, infinitely varied by clouds and cloud-shadows, by pasture and arable, dark patches of woods and pallor of pools, by the lambent burnish of the west and the soft purpling of the east, even by differing weathers—here great shafts of sunlight, there the blurred column of a distant shower, or the faint smear, like a bruise upon the horizon, of a low-hanging mist.
Killigrew lay on his stomach and gazed his fill, his thin nostrils dilating rather like a rabbit's, as they always did if he were moved by anything—a trick which, with his light eyelashes, had won for him the name of "Bunny." Ishmael threw himself on his back and lay staring up at the sky as it was slowly drawn past overhead, till with hard gazing the whole world seemed spinning round him and the plummet of his sight was drowned in the shifting heights that seemed to his reeling senses bottomless depths. When Killigrew spoke he plucked his eyes from their fixed stare with what was a physical effort and turned them giddily on to the other boy's usually pale face, now copper-pink in the warm light.
"Why d'you suppose she don't like Doughty?" asked Killigrew.
"I dunno ...; he is rather a swine, anyway."
"Yes, but how does she know that?"
This was a poser, and Ishmael failed at an answer beyond a feeble "Oh, well, because he is."
"If he's been a cad to her—" muttered Killigrew, vengefully.
"I don't know how he can have been; she's only seen him with us. But I don't know what you'd do about it if he had; you can't lick him; he's twice your size and weight."
"Would you never fight unless you were sure of winning?" demanded Killigrew scornfully. Ishmael thought a minute.
"I think it is that I never fight until I'm sure of winning," he said at last; "if I found I wasn't strong enough I wouldn't go in and be beaten; I'd train hard till I was and then fight."
"But that might take ages and you'd forget what you wanted to fight the chap about."
"I don't think I'd forget, if I'd wanted to fight him. I might, though, I suppose...."
"You're all wrong, you know," opined Killigrew; "'tisn't the winning that really matters ... sounds silly, but I don't know how to explain it."
"Sounds like something the Parson would say—my Parson," said Ishmael on one of his flashes of intuition; and then they both laughed, for Killigrew was one of those rare creatures, a born pagan—or rather heathen, which is not quite the same thing. The pagan has beliefs of his own; the true heathen denies the need for any, through sheer lack of interest.
"D'you think girls are so very different from us ...?" went on Killigrew after a moment's silence. "The sort of things they really want to do and think about?"
"Girls are quite different," said Ishmael firmly; "they talk awful rot; I've heard my sister and Phoebe—that's a girl at home."
"Yes, so does my sister—at least, she talks sort of clever stuff that's as bad. But how about Hilaria?" asked her admirer.
"Well, she's more sensible than most, because she wants to do things as though she weren't a girl, but I don't see how she's going to keep it up. She'll fall in love and then it'll all be over."
"You don't think much of girls, do you?"
"Oh, well ... they're all right, I suppose. I want to do things, and girls want to feel things. Oh, yes, Bunny, they're awfully different."
"From you, perhaps ... I dunno ... I say, d'you really want the old bishop to lay his paws on your head?"
"Yes," replied Ishmael, briefly.
"Well, so does Hilaria. She read me some stuff out of a book—ripping fine stuff it was—by a chap called Mallory. All about knights that were searching for a cup they thought had the blood of God in it or something of the sort. But she seemed to believe it."
"I believe it, too. Not that they lived like that book, but that there is the Blood ... Oh, what's the good of trying to explain to you? It's like you when you're painting and you try and make me see a lot of colours I can't."
"Hullo ... there she comes," cried Killigrew, with a sudden quickening of voice and aspect; "I say, it must be ghastly trying to walk in one of those things. Girls must be different or they wouldn't put up with them. I'll go and help her. Come on, we'll have to sit down below now."
The two boys scrambled down the boulders and assisted Hilaria—the hem of whose white tarlatan skirts showed already the worse for her walk—over the hummocky patch of rocks and gorse that fringed the hollow. Laughing rather ruefully, she flung herself down, scattering her bonnet, shawl, and bag over the turf in the impetuous movement. The lowest rim of the crinoline promptly stood straight up from the ground like a hoop, displaying her long legs and the multitudinous petticoats lying limply upon them, and she was forced to adopt a change of position. Finally she settled herself with her feet tucked in under her and the obnoxious garment swelling out all round, as though she had just flopped down and made what the children call a "cheese."
"I say, where's the magazine?" asked Ishmael.
"In my bag; but you're not to 'look on.' Here are some jumbles, but we must keep the others' share for them. Did you get them all, Ishmael?" For some reason best known to herself, she called him by his Christian name and Killigrew by his nickname of "Bunny," though she addressed the other boys in mannish fashion of surnames only.
"I told Polkinghorne minor and told him to let the others know."
"Did you remember to tell him we didn't want Doughty?"
"I think so ... at least I didn't say to ask him to come," confessed Ishmael, who had the worst head in the world for a message.
"Here they are," announced Killigrew; "I think there're only four of them ..." He screwed up his eyes to gaze, for he was short-sighted. Ishmael gave a glance.
"There's five ..." he said apologetically; "I'm afraid he's there. I can see Polkinghorne and Carminow and Polkinghorne minor and Moss minor and—yes, it's Doughty. I hope you don't mind fearfully, Hilaria?"
She threw a queer little look at him. "It's not for me," she said slowly; "it's only that I don't think he likes you, Ishmael. He tried to tell me something funny about you the other day. He comes to papa for extra coaching in French, you know, and I had to give him tea...."
"About me—?" Ishmael stared blankly, then, more from some premonition than anything else, grew slowly and burningly red. The colour ebbed away, leaving him pale. "What was it?" he asked.
"Nothing. At least, I honestly don't know what. Papa shut him up. He said to him he was no gentleman to say such things before a jeune fille—" She broke off, feeling she had hardly improved matters. A deadly suspicion that had once before knocked on Ishmael's heart and been refused more than a second's glance for sheer incredibility pounded at him again, making the blood sing in his ears. Nothing heard at school or from the Parson—who had long perturbed himself as to the right moment for explanations—had started those first warning notes, but words freely bandied across his head at home as a little boy, and then meaningless to him—words that had since echoed back on to fuller knowledge ominously. If it had not been that Archelaus, the free-speaker and the vindictive One of the family, was still in Australia, and that Ishmael spent a large part of his holidays with friends of the Parson's in Devon and Somerset, the conspiracy of secrecy, wise or unwise, could not have lasted so long. He stared at Hilaria and his fingers dug into the turf at either side of him.
At that moment Killigrew relieved the tension by jumping up and calling a wild, long-drawn "Hullo-o" to the approaching boys. They came running up the slope and flung themselves down in a circle, while Polkinghorne major, a big, jolly, simple-minded boy, one of the best liked in the school, laid audacious hands on the bag, which Hilaria snatched from him with a shriek.
Doughty had ensconced himself by her, crowding between her and Ishmael to do so, a manoeuvre which the latter, rather to Doughty's surprise, did not seem to resent. This was the more odd as the boys had several times already, both in school and out of it, come into conflict over trifling matters, not so much from any desire to quarrel as because they were by nature extremely antipathetic. Ishmael disliked Doughty and took little trouble to hide the fact. He hated his pasty sleekness, which made him think of a fat pale grub, and he hated the way the elder boy hung round Killigrew; not from jealousy—Ishmael still cherished aloofness too dearly for that—but from some instinct which told him Doughty was evil. Killigrew lay opposite Doughty now, looking oddly girlish with his slim form and colourless face, that would have been insipid but for his too red mouth. There was a white incisiveness about Killigrew, however, a flame-like quality quaintly expressed in his hair, that promised the possibility of many things, and showed up sharply in comparison with the gross but hard bulk of Doughty. There had been no real reason till this evening, when Hilaria had told of his evil-speaking, for Ishmael to dislike Doughty, but now he knew that he had done so all along.
Doughty hated Ishmael because he did not understand him, and he was of the breed which hates the incomprehensible. Though he had only joined the preceding term, Doughty was nearly seventeen, and owing to a spinal weakness of his youth he had till now been educated at home. He came from Devonshire, which would not have mattered had he been popular, but which, as he was not, was frequently thrown at him as a disadvantage. Now, as he lay beside Ishmael, he stared at him with a something slyly exultant in his look, but the younger boy failed to meet his eyes and merely gazed serenely into vacancy. Hilaria settled herself, opened the bag, and disentangled from the ribbons of her dancing shoes the precious number of All the Year Round that contained the instalment of "The Woman in White" they had all been so eagerly awaiting.
The boys left off fidgeting and became mouse-still, while only the low voice of the girl reading of the helpless lovers, of the terrible smiling Count Fosco and his grim wife, broke the silence. The boys lay, thrilled by the splendid melodrama, their little differences forgotten with the rest of their personal affairs, and so they all stayed, Hilaria as enthralled as they, while unperceived the light began to fade and evening to creep over the moor.
SOME AMBITIONS AND AN ANNOUNCEMENT
Hilaria read on till, though she held the page close to her eyes, she seemed to fumble over the words. She was by then at the end of the instalment, and when she put the magazine down she pressed her fingers to her lids and complained that her eyes hurt her. "They often do," she said; "it's a good thing I'm not going to be an artist like Bunny or the hero of this story, isn't it?" She dropped her chin into her cupped palms and sat staring ahead, her eyes shining for all their smarting lids. "Isn't it, funny," she went on, "that we're all going to be something, some kind of a person, and don't really know a bit what kind? Yet I feel very much me already...."
"I'm going to be a soldier," said Polkinghorne, serenely missing any metaphysical proposition. He looked forward, on the strength of a Scottish mother, to joining a Highland regiment, and was known to shave his knees twice a week to make them of a manly hairiness against the donning of a kilt.
"I shall have to go into the City like my guv'nor, I suppose," admitted little Moss, "but I don't see why one shouldn't be the kind of chap one wants all the same. Your father's in the city, too, isn't he, Killigrew?"
"Yes, but that's no reason why I should be, and I'm jolly well not going to. I'm going to be an artist like Turner...." And Killigrew's voice unconsciously took on a singing inflection of rapture.
"There's no doubt about old Carminow, anyway," observed Polkinghorne, to be greeted with laughter. For Carminow, though the gentlest of creatures, took an extraordinary delight in all the agonies of human nature. Mine accidents had hardly occurred before Carminow, by some subtle agency, seemed aware of them, and had rushed to the scene, out of bounds or not. It was with genuine simplicity that he once bewailed the fact that it had been "an awfully dull half—no one had been killed for miles around." It was he, too, on the occasion of a terrible tragedy in the High Street, when Teague the baker had been killed by the lashing hoofs of his new horse, who had rushed out to superintend the removal of the body. The widow, clamorous with her sudden grief, had seized his arm, exclaiming "Oh, Master Carminow, whatever shall I do; whatever shall I do?" and, in all good faith he, his soul still unsatisfied by the view of the corpse, had replied kindly: "Do? Why, Mrs. Teague, if I were you I should have him opened...."
The story had lived against Carminow, and when in doubt about any course of action he was always advised to "have it opened." He did not join now in the laugh, but said seriously, failing, as always, to pronounce the letter "r":
"Of course I shall be a doctor. Last holidays I went a lot to Guy's where I have a chum, and I saw a lot of dissecting. Do you know that when they dissect 'em they stick a sort of squirt in their chests and dwaw off all the blood? I've got a theowy that I mean to put into pwactice some day. It seemed to me such a shame that all that good blood should go to waste like that, and it occurred to me what a splendid thing it would be if, instead of doing nothing with murdewers but kill 'em, they dwew off their blood while it was still warm and pumped it into famous men, gweat generals and people like that, who were getting old and feeble. Most murdewers are thundewing stout fellows, you know."
"How horrid you are, Carminow!" cried Hilaria. "I shouldn't think a great man would at all like having a murderer's blood in his veins. I'm sure my darling Lord Palmerston wouldn't."
"Oh, I don't say it's possible at pwesent," replied Carminow placidly, "but when surgeons know their business it will be. One must look at these things from a purely utilitawian standpoint."
Ishmael said nothing. He was lying on his back again, folded arms beneath his head, staring at the glory of the west that had passed from liquid fire to the feather-softness of the sun's aftermath. The presence of the others hardly impinged on his consciousness; vaguely he heard their voices coming from a long way off. One of his moods of exaltation, that only the very young know, was upon him—a state which amounts to intoxication and to recapture any glow of which older people have to be artificially stimulated. That is really the great dividing-line—when the sparkle, the lightness, the sharpened sense which stimulates brain and tongue and feeling, ceases to respond without a flick of help from the right touch of alcohol. That intoxication of sheer living was upon Ishmael now, as it had been on that long-ago evening when the Neck had been cried, as it had a few times since, with music, or a windy sun, or a bathe in rough sea, or some sudden phrase in a book. A something glamorous in the light, the low accents of Hilaria's voice and the stirring quality of what she read, the reaction, had he but known it, from the shock of suspicion occasioned by what she had told him, the cumulative effect of the exalted thoughts of the past weeks, all these things, added to his own rising powers and urgent youth, welled within him and mounted to his brain. He felt tingling with power as he lay there, apparently lax; it seemed to him he could hear the blood leaping in his veins and the beating of his pulses all over his body, could hear the faintest sound of calling lamb or far-off owl, could catch, with ears refined to a demigod's, the ineffably quiet rubbing of the millions of grass-blades, as though he could almost hear the evening falling.... From afar came the babble of the others as to what they might think they were going to be; for himself he could be anything, scale any heights, beat triumphantly through all things. He felt the swelling earth bearing him up, as though he were one with its strength and fertility, one with its irresistible march. He felt the sword-chill breath of the spring wind on his brow; he saw the first faint pricking of the earliest stars, and the rolling up of the sky as the great cumuli massed overhead; and he felt as though he too could sweep into them and be of them. Life was before him for him to do what he liked with. He laughed aloud and rolled over a little, flinging his arms wide. A stinging blow came on his cheek, and he heard Doughty's angry voice crying, "Take that!" and a sharp sound from Hilaria.
"Well, what's he want to laugh at me for? I'll teach him—" came Doughty's voice again. Ishmael had scrambled up; his blood was still singing in his veins; he felt no dismay at the sight of the looming Doughty.
"Don't be an ass, Doughty," said Polkinghorne sharply; "and if you can't help being a cad, wait till Miss Eliot isn't present."
"Oh, never mind about me; I want to see you kill him, Ishmael!" cried Hilaria viciously.
"Well, why did you want to laugh when Doughty said that?" asked Polkinghorne judicially.
"Said what?" asked Ishmael.
"Why, that he was just going to be a gentleman."
"Did he say that? I didn't hear him. But I should have laughed if I had...."
Killigrew stared at his friend in amazement. Was this the Ishmael who a half-hour or so ago had put forward the theory that one should never fight till one was sure of winning? He did not know that the wine in Ishmael's brain at that minute was the headiest in the world, the most sure in imparting sense of power—the sudden up-welling of the joy of life. It was Doughty's turn to laugh now; he seemed suddenly to have recovered poise.
"I forgot—you'd be such a good judge of a gentleman—with your family history," he said.
The singing went from Ishmael's being, but something hot came up through him like a tide. "What d'you mean by that?" he asked, and still in his passionate dislike of the other did not see what was opening at his feet.
"Only that a fellow with a pack of bastard brothers must have had just the father and mother to teach him...."
There was a moment's silence; the boys all felt intensely uncomfortable, not so much even at Hilaria's presence as at this sudden nakedness of thought and emotion. Doughty, set on justifying himself at least as far as accuracy went, held on. "I heard it at once when I went to my uncle's at Penzance last holidays. Everyone knows it down there. Of course Ruan knew it all along; he's been kidding all you fellows. He's no right in a school for gentlemen at all. His father married his mother when he was dying and all the brats but him were already born. That's why Ruan's being brought up a gentleman—because he's the only one who's not a bastard."
"Shut your foul mouth," ordered Polkinghorne angrily. "Hilaria, let me—"
"It's not true," cried Hilaria. "Tell them it's not true, Ishmael."
Killigrew had the quicker instinct. "What does it matter if it's true or not?" he asked. "We all know Ruan, and we think he's an awfully nice chap, and nothing else is any affair of ours. We don't care what Doughty's father and mother are, because we don't like him; we don't care what Ruan's are because we do like him. Personally, I don't see why Ruan should mind either. The thing doesn't alter him at all."
But that was exactly what Ishmael felt it did, though how he could not yet have told. Although he never doubted what he heard, it seemed to him like a dream that he had dreamt long ago and forgotten. It was a curious sense of unreality that impressed him most, that feeling of "This cannot really have happened to me ..." that everyone knows in the first moment of disaster. It was this sensation, not any temporising or actual disbelief, that kept him still motionless, staring. Polkinghorne began to feel the proprieties outraged by this immobility.
"I say," he began, "you can't take no notice ...; he's said things about your people, you know—about your mother ..."
For in common with many male creatures, men and boys, Polkinghorne, though not feeling more than others any particular sentiment beyond affection for his mother, yet held the point of honour, perhaps dating from ancient days of matriarchy, that an insult to one's mother was the deepest to oneself. Ishmael, too honest to be influenced by this consideration, yet felt constrained by the weight of public opinion. Also he was still upon the uplift of his mood; his blood tingled the more for the mental shock that had numbed his reasoning faculties. As in his turn he hit Doughty's cheek he felt a little glow at his own carelessness of consequences. Polkinghorne was beginning to feel worried, because seen together it was plain that the big Doughty overtopped Ishmael by nearly a head. Suddenly he had an inspiration and threw himself between them as Doughty swung out at the younger boy, thereby incidentally getting the blow himself.
"I'll lick you for that later, Doughty," he ejaculated. "Meanwhile, kindly shut up while I say something. Ruan can't fight you—"
"Can't he? Then what did he hit me for?"
"I can fight him all right, thanks," said Ishmael.
"But he can wrestle you," went on Polkinghorne imperturbably, "because he's a clever wrestler and he'll stand a fair chance. You can take it or leave it, but if you leave it I'll give you a thrashing for the honour of the school."
A murmur of assent came from the others, who saw an impossibly difficult situation thus in a way to be solved as far as the two principals in the quarrel were concerned, while to themselves it gave time to adjust their attitude, which they did not all take as simply as had Killigrew. In a fight Doughty's superior size would have given him all the advantage; in the West Country method of wrestling this would not necessarily hold true. And Ishmael was in far better condition.
Polkinghorne turned to Hilaria.
"Someone will see you home, of course," he said politely. "I shall have to stay as stickler, and Carminow as well, but I'll send Moss and the young 'un with you. And mind you keep your jaws shut about it when you get back to the school, you two."
Polkinghorne minor and Moss both looked considerably taken aback, but not more so than Hilaria. "Oh, I must stay, Polkinghorne," she pleaded, feeling for the first time a terrible sensation of not being wanted, of an unimportance essential to her sex and beyond her power to alter whatever her tastes or her justifiable reliance on her own nerves. But Polkinghorne, backed by Killigrew and Ishmael himself, was adamant, though Carminow saw no reason why she should not stay if it interested her. They stood waiting till her crinoline, like a huge piece of blown thistledown, had swayed around a curve of the path which hid it and the two little boys from sight, and then they prepared for business.
It was growing swiftly dusk, though the amphitheatre of turf where the boys stood, cupped the last of the light from the west, backed as it was by the semi-circle of tall rocks.
Polkinghorne made a quick survey of the place, then placed his men so that the light fell sideways, not directly upon either face.
"Shoes off, Doughty!" he ordered. "None of your nasty Devonshire ways here!" For the Devon rules admit kicking, and that with shoes, while Cornish, though allowing leg-play, insist it should be in stocking-feet, and consist of tripping and locking only. The whole West Country style of wrestling differs enormously from the North Country, in which Ishmael would have stood a poor chance against an opponent so much his superior in size. In the West they play for a hitch, instead of trying for a fall by sheer strength and weight, and if the smaller wrestler has a stock of good holds, and can only get under his opponent quickly enough, he may bring off the "flying mare," the great throw clear over the shoulder. Leg-play is the great feature, even in Cornwall, where prominence is given to the hug, and Ishmael had very strong legs, though his shoulders were not so heavy as Doughty's.