Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

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TEN DEGREES BACKWARD ***




Produced by Al Haines








TEN DEGREES
BACKWARD


BY

ELLEN THORNEYCROFT FOWLER

AUTHOR OF "HER LADYSHIP'S CONSCIENCE,"
"CONCERNING ISABEL CARNABY," ETC., ETC.



NEW YORK
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY




Copyright, 1915,
BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY




CONTENTS

I. I, Reginald Kingsnorth
II. Restham Manor
III. Frank
IV. Fay
V. The First Miracle
VI. St. Luke's Summer
VII. The Gift
VIII. Love Among the Ruins
IX. Things Great and Small
X. A Birthday Present
XI. In June
XII. Shakspere and the Musical Glasses
XIII. The Garden of Dreams
XIV. Annabel's Warning
XV. Darkening Skies
XVI. A Sorrowful Springtime
XVII. Desolation
XVIII. The New Dean
XIX. A Surprise
XX. Isabel, Née Carnaby
XXI. The Great War
XXII. The Last of the Wildacres
XXIII. The Peace of God
XXIV. Conclusion




TEN DEGREES BACKWARD



CHAPTER I

I, REGINALD KINGSNORTH

"Reggie, do you remember Wildacre?"

It was with this apparently simple question that Arthur Blathwayte rang
up the curtain on the drama of my life.

That the performance was late in beginning I cannot but admit. I was
fully forty-two; an age at which the drama of most men's lives are
over - or, at any rate, well on in the third act. But in my uneventful
existence there had been no drama at all; not even an ineffective
love-affair that could be dignified by the name of a "curtain-raiser."

Of course I had perceived that some women were better looking than
others, and more attractive and easier to get on with. But I had only
perceived this in a scientific, impersonal kind of way: the perception
had in nowise penetrated my inner consciousness or influenced my
existence. I was the type of person who is described by the populace
as "not a marrying sort," and consequently I had reached the age of
forty-two without either marrying or wishing to marry.

I admit that I had not been thrown into circumstances conducive to the
cultivation of the tender passion; my sister Annabel had seen to that;
but no sister - be she even as powerful as Annabel herself - can prevent
a man from falling in love if he be so minded, nor from seeking out for
himself a woman to fall in love with if none are thrown in his way.
But I had not been so minded; therefore Annabel's precautions had
triumphed.

Annabel was one of that by no means inconsiderable number of women who
constantly say they desire and think they desire one thing, while they
are actually wishing and working for the exact opposite. For instance,
she was always remarking how much she wished that I would marry - and
what a mistake it was for a man like myself to remain single - and what
a pity it was for the baronetcy to die out. And she said this in all
sincerity: there was never any conscious humbug about Annabel. Yet if
by any chance a marriageable maiden came my way, Annabel hustled her
off as she hustled off the peacocks when they came into the
flower-garden. My marriage was in theory one of Annabel's fondest
hopes: in practice a catastrophe to be averted at all costs.

My sister was five years my senior, and had mothered me ever since my
mother's death when I was a boy. There were only the two of us, and
surely no man ever had a better sister than I had. In my childhood she
stood between me and danger; in my youth between me and discipline; and
in my manhood between me and discomfort. As far as in her lay she had
persistently shielded me from all life's disagreeables; and a great
deal of shielding power lay in Annabel. Of course she ought to have
been the son and I the daughter: my mother said it when we were
children, and my father never tired of saying it when we were grown up,
and I myself fully realised the force of the remark. But I didn't see
that I could do anything, or that it was in any way my fault, though my
father always spoke as if he thought it were: as if in some occult way
Annabel's unselfishness and my carelessness were responsible for this
mistake in sex: and as if she had deliberately stood on one side in
order that the honour of manhood should fall upon me.

I consider that my father was in many ways a really great man.

Of comparatively humble origin, he raised himself by his own efforts
into a position of commercial importance - amassed a considerable
fortune - threw himself heart and soul into political life, serving his
party and his country with both zeal and efficiency - and died at last,
full of days and honours, beloved and admired by his friends, and
revered by the country at large.

And I cannot help seeing that - through no fault of my own - a
disappointment I, his only son, must have been to him. I say
advisedly, "through no fault of my own," though I have faults enough,
Heaven knows! The great tragedy of my life came through my own folly,
as I now at last realise: but I cannot see that the disappointment I
caused my father was my own doing, though the far greater
disappointment I caused to one dearer than my father most undoubtedly
was. But of that later.

I was exactly the sort of son that my father ought not to have had: in
modern parlance he had no use for me. His son should have resembled
himself, and should have been able to go on where he left off. As for
me, I was of no good at the business, and of still less in politics: I
could neither turn his thousands into tens of thousands, nor his
baronetcy into a peerage; for I was endowed with a fatal capacity for
sitting still. If that above-mentioned mistake of Nature had not been
made, and Annabel had been the boy, imagination fails to depict the
heights to which she might not have risen with her father's wealth and
position for a leaping-board: for, like her father, Annabel was dowered
with the gift of Success, whilst I had the gift of Failure.

It is strange how some people, of whom I, alas! am one, possess the
capacity to fail in whatsoever they undertake. I do not think it is
altogether a fault, as we cannot help it: it seems rather an inherent
quality, such as height or size or complexion. Even in childhood
Annabel's things always turned out well, and mine turned out badly.
Her garden blossomed like the rose, while mine was more or less a
desert place, though I worked in it quite as hard as she: her white
mice were ornaments to society, while mine grew into rats and had to be
destroyed; her birthdays were invariably fine, while mine, equally
invariably, turned to rain.

When I was young this quality of failure terribly distressed and
depressed me; but age - or rather middle age - brings, in exchange for
the many things it takes away, the gift of philosophy; and by the time
I was forty I accepted the fact that I was a failure with much the same
resignation that I accepted the facts that I was short-sighted and too
narrow in the shoulders for my height. True, I was now and again
haunted by the feeling that I had lived in a backwater, and had never
tasted the living waters, nor felt the fierce swirl of the river of
life as it rushed by on its headlong course, and that I was getting too
old now ever to taste and to feel these things; but this regret was
soon smothered by the beauty of my backwater, and my contentment in the
lot which had been ordained for me.

Now that I am older I can see that though this quality of Failure is
very trying to those who are so unfortunate as to possess it, it is
also very irritating to all the successful people round about. And
this fills me with wonder and gratitude when I remember the patience
that my father and Annabel always showed towards me, who was so
differently constituted from themselves. In spite of his
disappointment in me, my father always showed me the greatest kindness
and affection, and it is a comfort to me to remember that though I was
not a son of whom he could be proud, I was never one of whom he could
feel ashamed. I could not do the things that he would have had me do:
but I studiously left undone anything of which I knew he would have
disapproved. That seemed the only reparation I could make for having
been the boy and allowed Annabel to be the girl.

My father did not marry until late in life; and my mother, though
considerably his junior, was by no means young at the time of her
marriage. This, perhaps, accounts for the fact that Annabel and I seem
always to have been middle-aged. Our home was a happy one, but there
was no element of youth in it. We were surrounded by every comfort and
luxury, but enjoyed less actual pleasure than did most young people of
our age and generation. My mother was a woman of good family, and as
poor as she was proud, and I always think she must have had her romance
with some one of her own age and rank before ever she met her
middle-aged husband, but that the quality of failure, which she handed
on to me, doomed that romance to disappointment.

It was after he had received his baronetcy that my father bought the
Restham estate and married Lady Jane Winterford; so Restham Manor has
always been my home - surely one of the loveliest and dearest homes that
man ever had.

I was considered a delicate boy, and so was educated (mistakenly, as I
now think) by tutors at home; thus I missed the inestimable advantage
of public-school life, a loss which can never be made up in after
years. It is to this loss, perhaps, that I owe the shyness and
sensitiveness which I have never been able to outgrow; and there is no
doubt that my home education fostered the feminine side of my
character - a side already too much developed.

I went to Magdalen College, Oxford, and took a third in Mods. and
Greats; and then - to please my father - was called to the Bar, but never
to a brief. And before I had waited long for the brief that never
came, my father died, and I inherited his title and estates, and I then
settled down to the life of a country squire - to my mind the most
delightful lot in the world for an unambitious man like myself - with
Annabel to keep house for me, as she had done for my father.

It was not long after this that the old rector of Restham died, and I
presented to the living my college friend, Arthur Blathwayte. Since
then he had well and wisely attended to the spiritual needs of the
parish, under the ægis of Annabel, who had from her childhood ruled
over the whole village of Restham.

Annabel was a most regular church-goer: our Sunday's dinner was always
fixed at an hour which gave her time to attend the evening service and
change into a black evening dress. Annabel would have died at the
stake rather than not change her dress for dinner; but she always wore
black on Sunday evenings, as a sort of concession to the day. She went
to church for three reasons: to worship God, to save her own soul, and
to see that Arthur Blathwayte didn't do anything ritualistic.

Every spring Annabel stood between me and the East wind by insisting on
our going abroad together for February and March. There was not the
slightest reason for any coolness, so to speak, between the East wind
and me: I was as capable of meeting it in the teeth as is any normal
Englishman; but my sister condemned it as one of the disagreeable
things of life, and therefore felt herself in honour bound to stand
between me and it. But she also felt herself bound to return before
the end of Lent, in case - without her restraining presence - Blathwayte
should be led into any ritualism on Easter Day.

And it was on the day of our return home from one of these
East-wind-eluding excursions, when Arthur and I were smoking after
dinner in the Manor dining-room, that he asked the curtain-raising
question: "Reggie, do you remember Wildacre?"

Of course I remembered him; who that had ever known Wildacre could help
remembering him? And the memory conjured up a vision of one of the
most attractive personalities I had ever met. Wildacre had been a
friend of Blathwayte's and mine at Oxford; but after we left college
the friendship had gradually fizzled out, owing to the extreme (not to
say dull) respectability of Arthur and myself, and the exact opposite
on the part of Wildacre. But what charm he had - what superabundant
vitality - what artistic genius! All of which came back to me with a
rush as I answered Arthur's question.

"Remember Wildacre? _Rather_! But why? Have you heard anything about
him?"

"Yes," replied Blathwayte in his turn. "I've heard a good deal while
you've been abroad. In fact, I've seen him."

"Seen him! Lucky old Arthur! I should like to see him too. It would
almost make one young again to see Wildacre."

"Well, it didn't exactly have that effect, as he was dying, you see."

Wildacre dying! The idea seemed impossible. Wildacre had always been
so full of life that one couldn't imagine him and Death hobnobbing;
they could have nothing in common with each other! And as to that
Other Life beyond the grave - in which in my own way I believed quite as
firmly as did Arthur - one couldn't imagine Wildacre at home there
either.

"Wildacre mustn't die yet!" I exclaimed; "not till he's done something
with all that genius of his and that overflowing energy! I couldn't
bear to think of his dying until he's made a name for himself.
Wildacre is a real poet, and he'll be a great poet some day."

Blathwayte shook his head. "He once might have been; he had it in him,
but he lost his opportunity, and lost opportunities don't return."

"No, Arthur, you are right there. There is no bringing the shadow on
the dial ten degrees backward. What is past is past, and what is
written is written, and Fate sends us no revise proofs to correct. The
youth we wasted or frittered or abused or ignored never comes back to
us to be lived over again, though we may shout ourselves hoarse with
crying for it." And for the moment the backwater feeling rushed over
me with such force that I felt almost suffocated with the hopeless pain
of it. "That is the real tragedy of life," I went on, "that there are
no encores."

"Poor Wildacre had it in him to do great things," said Arthur, "but he
lost his chance. At least he did worse than lose it; he threw it away
to the swine, and trampled it among the husks."

"But he may do something even yet," I argued.

"Genius - and Wildacre had genius - never grows old. And, hang it all,
man, he isn't so old after all! He is only two or three years older
than we are, and we aren't really old - only buried alive, which is
quite a different thing. If we lived in London instead of in the
blessed, peaceful country, we should still be considered young men
about town. Mind you, I'm not grumbling: I should hate to be a young
man about town, and I enjoy being buried alive; but I kick at being
called old at forty-two. It's positively libellous!"

"It isn't because Wildacre is old that he won't do anything now,"
replied Arthur simply; "but because he is dead."

The words came to me with a shock. Though it was twenty years since I
had seen Wildacre, I had never forgotten the vividness of his
personality; somewhere at the back of my mind there had been a
subconscious thought that he and I would meet again some day and pick
up the thread of that friendship which at one time had meant so much to
me. And now he was dead, and I should never see his handsome, laughing
face again! The world seemed suddenly to have grown colder and darker.

"Tell me all about it," I said, lighting another cigarette with hands
that trembled: and Arthur told me.

"Not long after you and Miss Kingsnorth had left England last February,
to my great surprise I received a letter from Wildacre. In it he told
me that he had spent the last twenty years of his life in Australia,
but was stricken with a mortal disease, and had come home to die."

"Where did he write from?" I asked.

"From lodgings in West Kensington. He wrote further that his time was
short, and he wanted to consult me about his affairs before he died.
So I went at once."

A wave of intense regret swept over me that I had not been at home at
the time so that I, too, could have seen Wildacre. And I was also
conscious of a pang that he had written to Blathwayte in his need and
not to me. The thought of my own ineffectiveness stabbed me once again
in the place where it had stabbed me so often that the wound never
really healed. So I was a failure even in friendship, as in everything
else!

But all I said was, "Well?"

Arthur went on in his plodding way: it was always impossible to hurry
him: "I found him a good deal altered. In spite of your notion that
genius never grows old, he looked a good ten years older than you do,
Reggie."

"I tell you I'm not old; only buried alive."

But Arthur took no notice of my interruption. That is where he was
always so restful to be with: he plodded along in his own way, utterly
unconscious of any fret or worry or interruption. This was his custom
in great things as well as in little ones. In my own mind I always
applied to him the words of Bacon: he "rested on Providence, moved in
Charity, and turned upon the poles of Truth." But I do not attempt to
deny that both in moving and turning he never exceeded a speed limit of
eight miles an hour.

"Of course Wildacre was very ill, and that made him look still older;
but one could see at a glance that he was a fellow who had gone the
pace. His hair was quite grey, and his face deeply lined."

"Yet he wasn't so much older than we are." It was always better to
humour Arthur when he was telling a story. If one attempted to hustle
him he stumbled and fell, and had to begin all over again.

"But you look the youngest, Reggie. You are very young looking for
your age. If you didn't wear a beard, I believe you'd still be taken
for a mere boy."

"You go on about Wildacre," I remonstrated, "and never mind my beard."
I was not hustling, I was merely gently guiding.

"Well, he told me that he had married nearly twenty years ago - an
actress or a dancer or somebody of that kind, and that she died ten
years later, leaving him with a twin son and daughter. His wife was an
Australian, and he had lived out there ever since his marriage until he
came home to die."

"Was she beautiful?" But the moment I had asked it I felt it was a
superfluous question. Of course she was, otherwise Wildacre would not
have loved her: the more sterling qualities never appealed to him. The
dramatic force of the whole situation seized upon me: the brilliant
poet being bewitched by a beautiful dancer, and for her sake banishing
himself to the Antipodes. There was an air of adventure about the
whole thing that stirred my blood, it was so far removed from anything
in my decorous and commonplace experience. Beautiful dancers do not
grow in backwaters.

"I haven't an idea," replied Arthur; "Wildacre didn't say anything
about her looks, and it never occurred to me to ask him what she was
like. Besides, it would have been an impertinence."

"I know it would, but I should have asked him, nevertheless, if I had
been in your place. It is a great mistake to allow the fear of being
impertinent to prevent one from obtaining useful and interesting
information. But were there no photographs of her about the place?"

"I don't know, I never noticed any; but you know I am a poor hand at
noticing things," replied Arthur, with some truth.

I nodded. "Pray don't mention it; it is a peculiarity of yours too
obvious to require remark. But for goodness' sake get on about
Wildacre!"

"To cut a long story short," said Arthur (a thing, by the way, which he
was constitutionally incapable of doing), "he explained to me that he
had sent for me because all his own relations were dead, and his wife's
people, though well-to-do, had risen from too humble a rank of life to
be entrusted altogether with the upbringing of his children, and he did
not think it fair to the children to trust them after his death into an
inferior social position to that to which they had been born. They
would be comfortably provided for - about eight hundred a year each - but
he felt they must have some one of his own rank of life to look after
them until they were of age and capable of looking after themselves.
You see, Reggie, there are so many temptations to beset the feet of the
young - and especially if they have no competent person to guide and
shelter them."

"Skip the temptations of the young," I said, "and get on with
Wildacre's death."

Blathwayte's amiability was imperturbable, so he merely smiled
indulgently as he endeavoured, as far as in him lay, to obey my behest.
He was an excellent fellow in every respect, and I had the deepest
regard and affection for him, but he was apt to drop into preaching
unless carefully watched.

"Well, then, to come to the point, he wanted to know if I would consent
to be the children's guardian until they came of age. There was no one
else he should be so happy to leave them with, he said; but he felt
that, being a parson, I should look after them and see that they didn't
get into mischief, and all that, don't you know!"

This was a bomb-shell indeed: the reverend and middle-aged Arthur
suddenly converted into an amateur _pater-familias_!

"And you consented?" I asked.

"Of course. What else could I do when Wildacre asked me, and he was
dying?" That was exactly like Arthur: the thought of himself, and of
the upset to his peaceful bachelor existence by the advent of two
children into the well-ordered rectory, never once entered into his
calculations.

"What age are they?" I asked.

"Eighteen. They are both leaving school this term, and the boy is
dreadfully backward; I am going to cram him for Oxford."

We were both silent for a moment; then I felt myself smiling. "It will
be rather fun, don't you think?" I ventured to remark.

Arthur smiled too. "That has occurred to me also. It will be such a
change to have young things about the place with all their faults and
fripperies and follies."

I heartily agreed with him. "It will; for you and Annabel and I have
been getting terribly middle-aged lately. I've noticed it;
particularly in the case of you and Annabel. And what are their names?"

"If you remember, Wildacre's name was Francis."

"I didn't ask what Wildacre's name was," I murmured persuasively. "I
asked what his children are called."

"After him."

"Not both of them?"

"Yes, both; he said his wife insisted in calling both the children
after him; so their names are Francis and Frances."

"How absurd!" I said; but all the same it was an absurdity that I
rather liked. It showed how foolish and sentimental and unpractical
the beautiful little dancer had been; and I had always lived in such an
atmosphere of wise reasonableness and practical common sense that
anything wild and foolish and unpractical never failed to exercise a
certain charm for me. Annabel always strongly objected to the same
initials being repeated in a family, as she said "it made it so
confusing for the laundress." I quite saw Annabel's point in this
matter, and applauded it; I should greatly have objected, owing to any
confusion in initials, to have had her clean undergarments substituted
for mine; but all the same I could not help feeling a sort of unholy
admiration for the woman in whose eyes the claims of the laundry were
non-existent.

"It isn't really as confusing as it sounds," Arthur explained; "as the
boy is always called Frank, and the girl Fay."

"What nice names!" I exclaimed. "Frank sounds so typically
schoolboyish, and Fay so utterly fairy-like and irresponsible."

Blathwayte's good-humoured face grew serious again. "Poor children, to
lose their father and mother so young! Wildacre lived about a month
after that, and I saw him frequently. I was with him when he died. It
was quite peaceful at the end, and I think he was glad to have me with
him."

"Then you've seen the children?" I asked.

"Several times. They are wonderfully alike, with - - "

But I stopped him with a wave of the hand. "Please don't describe
them; I hate to have either places or people described to me
beforehand; I like to form my own impressions for myself."

"Of course it will be a great responsibility," Blathwayte said
thoughtfully; "but perhaps you'll help me a bit when I get into a fix."

"I shan't be of any use, but I'm sure Annabel will. She's splendid
with young people, she is so kind and sensible; and she'll give you a
helping hand whenever you are in need of one."

"I always think Miss Kingsnorth would have made an admirable
stepmother."



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