Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

Ten Degrees Backward online

. (page 4 of 22)
Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerTen Degrees Backward → online text (page 4 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Just as really they aren't your sort, if they weren't your sister and
your rector. Of course one would like one's sister, whatever she was;
I should be fond of Fay, even if she was like Miss Kingsnorth; but she
wouldn't be my sort, do you see? In the same way Fay and I would have
been fond of Father whatever he'd have been like, just because he was
our father. But he happened to be our sort as well, so we simply
adored him."

This slightly took my breath away. I had not yet been broken in to the
custom of the rising generation of discussing their elders as freely as
they discuss their contemporaries. The ancient tradition of ordering
myself lowly and reverently before my betters still tainted my blood,
and I had not outworn the Victorian creed that one's elders are of
necessity one's betters.

"It would never have occurred to me to consider whether my parents were
my sort or not," I said.

"It would to me - the very first thing. You see, some families are all
the same sort, like a set of tea-things, while others are just a
scratch team. We were all the same sort - Father and Fay and me. But
you and Miss Kingsnorth are not the same pattern, nor the same make,
nor even the same material. You are pure scratch."

I smiled. Though I was devoted to Annabel, I did not exactly yearn to
be considered like her. "Then do you honour me by considering me your
sort as well as your sister's?"

"It's the same thing: Fay's sort is always my sort. We're as much
alike inside as we are out, and we always feel the same about things
and people. It's most awfully lucky for us," continued the boy,
slipping his arm into mine in a delightfully confidential fashion as we
strolled up and down the lawn, "that you happen to be our sort, as it
would have been rather rough luck on Fay and me to have nobody better
to talk to than old Blathwayte. But now that you are so decent we
shall manage quite well."

Had I possessed any aptitude for the word in season, I should have here
endeavoured to rub in some salutary suggestions as to poor Arthur's
kindness in throwing open his celibate rectory to two homeless orphans;
but the improvement of other people has never been one of my foibles.
"It will make it much jollier for me, too, to have you and your sister
to talk to," was all I said.

"I liked that idea of yours about the pilgrims most awfully," continued
Frank, with the glorious patronage of youth; "it is so jolly to think
of their being on an adventure as well as the Roman legions."

"And starting in a much more adventurous spirit, because a so much more
imaginative one. For my part I don't believe the tramping soldiers saw
much further than their own Roman noses, while the pilgrims beheld
visions of the earthly Jerusalem as they made the Holy Sign upon the
holy stone from Palestine, and visions of the heavenly Jerusalem as
they approached the towers of Canterbury."

"And what makes it so much more interesting to us, when you come to
think of it, is that the Roman adventure came to an end ages and ages
ago," added Frank; "while the pilgrims' adventure is still going on,
and we're sort of part of it - at least we can be if we like."

I could have shouted aloud for joy to have chanced upon so kindred a
spirit. "Exactly so," I answered; "my dear boy, you have grasped the
idea of what it means to belong to an historic Church: it is the idea
of being all part of the one great adventure."

"I know; just like things that have happened to one's own ancestry are
so much more thrilling than things which happened to other people's,
because they're all in the family, don't you see?"

By this time Blathwayte had apparently succeeded in convincing Annabel
that the sun could not put a fire out - or else Annabel had succeeded in
convincing him that a fire could put the sun out - I have never yet
discovered which; but any way the argument had arrived at a
satisfactory conclusion, and the combatants came into the garden
together in perfect amity, whereupon Annabel carried off Frank to show
him the unworthy forget-me-nots, and consult him as to her dealings
with them, whilst Arthur discussed with me the course of proceedings of
the coming Easter vestry. Some men have greatness thrust upon them,
and the greatness of being rector's warden of Restham parish had been
thrust upon me by Blathwayte some years previously.

Thus began my friendship with Frank Wildacre - a friendship which was
destined to bring sorrow as well as joy into my life. Do I wish that I
had never known him, and so had escaped all the pain that he was
foredoomed to cause me? I cannot say. Life would doubtless have been
far easier for me had he never crossed my path. But on the other hand
he was part of the great adventure on which I embarked when I forsook
my backwater, and I still feel for him - after all that has
happened - that sense of comradeship which the sharing of an adventure
always leaves behind it after the battles and the bitterness are over
and done with.

I think that is the reason why - as one grows older - one feels an
interest in people one knew when one was young, even if one felt no
interest in them at the time. They were part of the great adventure of
one's youth.




CHAPTER IV

FAY

The intimacy between Frank Wildacre and myself developed apace. We
discussed everything from Shakespeare to the musical glasses (whatever
that may mean), and found ourselves wonderfully agreed on most points.
On the few points where we did not see eye to eye, our differences were
as pleasant as our agreements, for Frank loved argument for argument's
sake, and never came within a mile of losing his temper. In my humble
opinion people who lose their tempers over arguments are as tiresome as
people who lose their tempers over games, and both should respectively
be talked to and played with at the expense of the State rather than of
Society.

Frank not only firmly established himself in my affections: he made
equally secure resting-places in the affections of Annabel and Arthur,
and even of Ponty. But - so weak was I - it flattered my vanity to
perceive that in his eyes I found the most favour of the four. It was
so delightful to feel myself in touch with youth, and to know that
youth was not altogether out of touch with me. The angel of youth
stirred the pool of my backwater, and rippled the stagnant surface with
the breath of healing.

"You seem to have taken to Frank," Annabel remarked. "I am glad, as it
will be so nice for him to have a friend like you."

"I should rather put it that it will be nice for me to have a friend
like him." Already a week's intimacy with young Wildacre had shaken my
hitherto unquestioning acceptance of the dogma that one's elders are of
necessity one's betters; but nothing would ever shake Annabel's.

"That is an absurd way of looking at it, Reggie. Young people may be
rather a nuisance to us, but we must always be a help and comfort to
them, and especially when - as in Frank's case - they have no parents of
their own. You will try to prove next that even parents are no help to
the young!"

"Far from it! I would ever go so far as to urge that they are more
than a help - that they amount to a necessity. I quite agree that
children can - and ought to - learn much from their parents; but the
relation of a parent is unique. Because children must submit to their
parents, it doesn't follow that they must submit to all their elders."

"Yes, it does, because it would be impossible for the parents not to be
older than the children," replied Annabel triumphantly, "so that the
one includes the other."

I marvelled at the reasoning powers of the female mind, and held my
peace. Feeling that her logic had utterly confounded me, Annabel
condescended to be gracious. "Still, of course, it is pleasant for you
to have Frank as a companion," she deigned to admit. "He takes the
place of that nephew which I always regret you never had."

"The remedy was in your own hands," I ventured to remark.

"Reggie, don't be coarse! I think the relation of uncles and aunts is
a very agreeable one, as it provides all the pleasure of being a parent
with none of the responsibility: at least, none of the overpowering
responsibilities. Now if you'd had children, they would have been a
source of great interest and pleasure to me."

"Who is being coarse now?" I demanded.

"Certainly not I; and it isn't very nice-minded of you to suggest such
a thing. To the pure all things are pure."

I had never for a moment doubted Annabel's purity, so I humbly ceded
the point. "I wonder if you would have been an equal source of
interest and pleasure to them," I speculated.

"Of course I should. I should have been a second mother to them,"
replied Annabel briskly, without, however, lifting the veil, which
evidently, in her imagination, shrouded the fate of their first mother,
and prevented the latter from fulfilling her appointed maternal duties.

Annabel was in particularly good spirits just then. Easter Day had
passed without developing in Arthur any symptoms of blatant ritualism:
the forget-me-nots were flourishing with such vigour that the blue
blush, which was just beginning to tint their surface, promised to
spread over the whole bed, and the results of the spring-cleaning,
which had been conducted during our absence abroad, appeared to be more
than usually drastic and complete. Therefore my sister's cup of
happiness was inclined to brim over.

As for myself, I was impatient, I admit, for the coming of Miss
Wildacre. As I was generally talking to Frank, and as Frank was
generally talking about his sister, that sister necessarily was often
in my thoughts, and I was extremely curious to see what manner of girl
she would prove to be.

"When is your sister coming?" I asked him one day. "I thought you had
left school this last term, and were coming to settle down at Restham
for the summer: you on your way to Oxford in October, and your sister
more or less for what people call 'good.'"

"So we are. Fay has left school as school; but she is so awfully keen
on her old schoolmistresses that she is spending her last Easter with
them just for pleasure, after all the other girls have gone home for
the holidays, except one that has only a father and mother in India,
and an aunt who is too full just now to take her in."

"I wonder at Miss Fay being so fond of her school-mistresses, as you
told me she hated anything in the shape of improvement or instruction."

"So she does. But the Miss Wylies never improved her at all: she is
just as nice now as she was when she first went there. And as for
teaching her anything, they simply couldn't, for she knew a sight more
when she was a kid of ten than they know now."

"A most harmless seminary," I murmured.

"But she is coming at the end of this week," Frank continued; "she says
she can't keep away any longer, she is in such a tremendous hurry to
see you, after all I've told her about you."

"What have you told her about me?" I asked, with pardonable curiosity.

"Oh, lots and lots of things! I've told her how good looking you are
in a queer, Charles the First kind of way, and how you resemble the
Miss Wylies in being so young for your age, and not seeming anything
like as old as you really are, and how you like the things we like, and
laugh at the things we laugh at."

"A fairly accurate description, but not altogether a complimentary
one," I remarked.

"Well, anyhow - complimentary or not complimentary - it's made her wild
to see you, and I'm sure that ought to satisfy a fellow."

"It does," I replied; "but the important question is, shall I satisfy
Miss Wildacre when she comes here expecting a combination of Charles
the First and the Miss Wylies and herself and yourself rolled into one?"

"Oh, she'll be satisfied right enough; trust her! I will say that for
Fay: she's very easily pleased."

"In that case she and I are bound to get on well together," I said,
stroking my moustache in order to hide a smile.

On the Saturday afternoon before Low Sunday I was sitting smoking on
the lawn. It was one of those precocious spring days which give
themselves the airs of the height of summer, and I treated it as if it
were really summer, and behaved myself accordingly. Not so Annabel.
She regulated her conduct by the almanac rather than the atmosphere,
and never considered it safe to sit out-of-doors until May was
overpast. Let the sun beat down never so fiercely upon her covered
head, Annabel stood upon her feet as long as she was out-of-doors. Why
it was warmer to stand still than to sit still, I never was able to
make out; but Annabel considered that it was, and therefore to her it
was so. But when once the calendar assured her that "May was out" and
that consequently she would be justified in casting as many clouts as
she desired, the conduct as well as the costume of my sister underwent
a complete transformation. She would then sit out-of-doors in a linen
gown, defying the inclemency of an English June for hours together,
whilst the fire-places at the Manor became suddenly clad with such a
superabundance of verdure that the lighting of a fire would have been a
veritable upheaval of Nature.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the thermometer being
sixty-three in the shade, Annabel was keeping herself warm by standing
perfectly still watching Cutler ply the mowing-machine, whilst I was
keeping myself equally cool by sitting on the terrace doing nothing in
particular, when suddenly the big oak door which led into the village
opened, and Frank Wildacre, with a girl in deep mourning, came down the
stone steps into the garden.

As long as I live I shall never forget the vision of Fay Wildacre as
she stepped into my life that sunny afternoon. Although, according to
Annabel, the time for clout-casting was still more than a month ahead,
the girl's dress had no memory of winter clinging to it: it was of a
diaphanous texture, falling in soft folds round her slight figure, and
the neck and arms of it were transparent, showing the dazzlingly fair
skin underneath. On her head was a big black hat, which threw her
curly hair and her starry eyes into most becoming shadow, making them
look darker than they really were. She was certainly very like Frank,
though rather taller for a woman than he was for a man, and she shared
his elfin grace and vitality, and his transparent white complexion and
bright scarlet lips. She was a replica of her brother, only more
fairy-like. Perhaps my short-sightedness, which hid any defects she
might have had, caused me then, as afterwards, to exaggerate her
beauty. Of that I am unable to judge. But all I know is that as Fay
Wildacre stood before me that afternoon, she appeared the embodiment of
everything that is exquisite and enchanting and elusive in womankind: I
had never seen - I had never even imagined - anything quite so entrancing.

And that was the girl towards whom Annabel had decreed that I should
play the part of an affectionate uncle!

"This is Fay," was Frank's succinct introduction as we met in the
middle of the lawn. "Now isn't he just what I told you?" he added,
turning to his sister.

For a second a cool little hand lay in my own, and a pair of glorious
grey eyes looked laughingly into mine, while a deep, almost boyish,
voice replied: "Quite a look of Charles the First, and distinct dash of
us but not the faintest flavour of Wylie."

"Thank you," I rejoined, "you have relieved my mind considerably."

Fay laughed Frank's merry gurgle. "It really was hard lines on you to
be told you were Wylie-ish, and so untrue, too! Frankie, how could you
be such a brute to the poor man?"

"I wasn't the least bit of a brute. I only meant he was like the
Wylies in not looking or seeming his age. And, besides, you're always
so keen on the Wylies that I thought you'd think it a compliment for
anybody to be thought like them."

The mocking eyes were now turned upon Frank. "But no one is attached
to many people whom one would hate to resemble. I adore the Wylies
myself; but if you said I was like them I should knock you down."

Frank grinned. "If you could."

"I could - easily. I am quite as tall as you are and much stronger,"
retorted the redoubtable Miss Wildacre.

"And I am quite ready to keep the ring," I added.

Fay shook her head. "No, Sir Reginald; as I am strong I will be
merciful, especially as I have put my best frock on in order to produce
a favourable impression on you and Miss Kingsnorth. I'm not dressed
for prize-fighting."

"As regards myself, the frock has succeeded beyond your wildest
expectations. I cannot, of course, answer for my sister; but here she
comes to answer for herself," I replied, as Annabel joined us.
"Annabel, let me introduce you to Miss Wildacre."

"I am very pleased to see you, my dear, and to welcome you to Restham,"
said my sister in her most gracious manner. "I very much hope that you
will like the place and be happy here."

"Of course she will," Frank chimed in; "because I do: Fay and I
invariably like the same things."

"I trust that Miss Wildacre will endorse your good opinion," said
Annabel.

"Oh, please don't call me Miss Wildacre. If you do I shall get
home-sick at once; and that would be a pity, as I've no home to go to
to cure it. If I'm to be happy, everybody must call me Fay: otherwise
I shall wrap myself in a green-and-yellow melancholy, and sit, like
Patience on a monument, smiling at Restham."

Annabel beamed at this suggestion. "I certainly think it will sound
more friendly for me to call you by your Christian name, and for
Reginald to do so too. It seems rather absurd for people of our age to
call children of yours _Mr_. and _Miss_. Besides, we want to take the
place of an uncle and an aunt to you, and uncles and aunts always call
nephews and nieces by their Christian names."

I felt a distinct wave of irritation against Annabel. I was fully
aware that I was twenty-four years older than the twins, but I saw no
necessity for rubbing it in like this, and, after all, I was five years
younger than Annabel.

After a little desultory conversation, my sister asked the young people
to walk round the garden, before tea; so we started on one of those
horticultural pilgrimages which are an absolute necessity to the moral
welfare of all garden-lovers. Frank, having shared in the
forget-me-not tribulation, was a partaker in Annabel's joy at the
sky-blue blush now spreading over the bed; and Fay asked all the right
questions and said all the right things. She even went so far as to
wonder whether Queen Elizabeth ever sat under the mulberry tree,
thereby giving Annabel her always-longed-for opportunity of explaining
that mulberry trees were unknown in England until the reign of James
the First.

Frank pulled up in ecstasy opposite a flame-coloured azalea that was
just bursting into bloom. "Isn't it simply ripping?" he exclaimed.
"It's for all the world like a coloured picture of the Burning Bush in
a Sunday book!"

"It reminds one of Mrs. Browning's 'common bush afire with God,'" added
his sister.

"The flame-coloured azaleas are not as common as the pink-and-white
ones," explained Annabel the Literal. "And I am sorry to see that this
particular plant is becoming overshadowed by an elder-tree," she added,
fiercely breaking off an overhanging branch of the offending elder with
her own hands.

"Poor little azalea!" exclaimed Fay; "I pity it. It is so crushing to
be overshadowed by one's elders. We have all been through it, and so
we know exactly how it feels."

Annabel apparently did not hear the joke, and she most certainly did
not see it. "I must speak to Cutler about the elder-trees," she went
on, "and tell him to cut them down more. To my mind he is letting them
have their own way far too much."

"It's an awful mistake to let one's elders have too much of their own
way," said Frank. "Let us be careful that we don't do it, Fay."

Annabel heard that time. "You are confusing two words, Frank," she
kindly explained. "I was referring to elder-trees. There are two
kinds of elders: the people who are older than ourselves, and the
elders that grow in the garden."

"And the elders that grew in Susanna's garden," added the irrepressible
Frank, "that's a third kind."

I smothered a laugh, and Annabel looked shocked: Fay's laugh showed no
signs of any smothering. "I do not approve of young people reading the
Apocrypha," my sister said rather stiffly: "it is not suitable for
them."

"But it's in the Bible in a sort of way," pleaded Fay, "we were allowed
to read it at Miss Wylies'."

"Not exactly the Bible; I could not call it the Bible." Annabel was
relentless.

Fay nodded airily. "I know what you mean: sort of, but not quite.
Rather like an Irish peer: no seat in the Lords, but a peer for all
practical purposes."

Annabel looked puzzled. "We were talking of the Bible, not of the
Peerage," she explained, as if the two words were of a similar nature
and so apt to be confused with one another. And to her mind I believe
they were.

"Of course we were," said Fay; "how stupid of me to mix up the two!"
Then she went on: "The forget-me-nots will be divine in a week or two!"
(She was looking at the debatable bed from a becoming distance.) "A
lovely blue pool that you will long to bathe in."

Frank opened his mouth to reply, but I was too quick for him. "No
further reference to Susanna, if you please," I said _sotto voce_,
laying a firm hand on his arm: "this is no place for her."

"I was thinking of her," he replied, with his bubbling laugh, "when Fay
began about bathing in the pool."

"I knew you were: that's why I stopped you."

Frank's suppressed bubble continued. I wanted to join in it, but I
daren't.

"How exquisite the house looks from here," exclaimed Fay. "I do adore
the rose-colour of the bricks that the Tudors used. They had a nice
taste in bricks."

"I think they were a jolly old rosy lot altogether," said Frank. "Took
everything as _couleur de rose_, don't you know, till it got into their
bones and their bricks!"

Fay agreed with this sentiment. "I dare say that was it: a sort of
Christian Science idea that if you thought your bricks were _couleur de
rose_ they really became _couleur de rose_. And I suppose that is why
all the new houses about London have that horrid yellow tinge: people
nowadays look at everything through _blasé_, jaundiced eyes, and so
everything is yellow to them, and eventually gets really yellow."

"Perhaps you would like to see over the house," suggested Annabel. "It
is considered one of the finest specimens of Tudor architecture in
Kent, and has never been touched since the time of Henry the Eighth."

"And to what do you attribute that neglect? - as the County Councillor
asked when he was shown a house that hadn't been touched since the
reign of Elizabeth," bubbled Frank.

I admit I laughed then: I couldn't help it.

"I knew you'd appreciate that," murmured he, confidentially slipping
his arm into mine; "I've been saving it for days, but never remembered
to get it off my chest when you were there. You see, you've got rather
a strong Kingsnorth strain in you: it's a pity, but you can't help it,
and when the Kingsnorth strain comes to the top, it's rather a waste of
good material telling you anything really funny. You take so long
being shocked, that by the time the shock has subsided the freshness of
the joke has evaporated."

"I wonder if you are right," I said. I always consider it a mistake to
neglect any opportunity of seeing myself through another person's eyes,
and if that other person happens to be considerably my junior, I think
the educational advantages of the vision are enhanced. To tell the
truth - down at the bottom of my deceitful and desperately wicked
heart - I had always cherished a secret belief that the Kingsnorth
strain in me was very faint - that I was almost pure Winterford, and it
was a considerable and not altogether pleasant surprise to discover
that the strain, which I had fondly imagined non-existent, was so
strong that it hit onlookers in the face!

Fortunately Annabel had not heard Frank's remark anent the Kingsnorth
strain: she was busy preparing the virgin soil of Fay's mind for an
inspection of the Manor, by casting abroad seeds of information
respecting that ancient building.

"And how nice of Queen Elizabeth to have slept here!" I heard Fay say.
"I think it was too sweet that way she had of sleeping about all over
everywhere so as to leave a sort of historical train behind her, like a


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerTen Degrees Backward → online text (page 4 of 22)