THE STARLING FLIES AWAY

“What is to come we know not. But we know
That what has been was good….
Let the great winds their worst and wildest blow,
Or the gold weather round us mellow slow:
We have fulfilled ourselves, and we can dare
And we can conquer, though we may not share
In the rich quiet of the afterglow
What is to come.”
W. E. HENLEY.

While Mr. Wycherly was still sitting over his port, Mrs. Dew brought him
a note that had come by hand. He opened it, and found that it was from
Miss Willows. Now, Mr. Wycherly knew very little of Miss Willows. She
had, it is true, been to tea with Jane-Anne on two occasions, when the
child had implored him to be present. Of course, Jane-Anne was dying to
“show him” to Miss Willows. That lady felt his charm, but she doubted
whether he was a very safe or suitable guardian for so unusual a girl.
What she had seen that afternoon convinced her that her doubts were
justified, and she felt that not a moment must be lost. It was
necessary to awake in him a sense of his responsibilities, therefore she
wrote:

“DEAR MR. WYCHERLY,

“I feel sure you will acquit me of any desire to be fussily interfering
if I venture to ask whether it is with your knowledge and approval that
Jane-Anne walks with undergraduates in the evening after tea. I hope
you know me too well to imagine that any foolish prudery or even an
exaggerated sense of the importance of Mrs. Grundy’s opinion causes me
to bring the subject before you. It is only that while Jane-Anne is so
young, while she is working so hard, it would be wiser, I think, to
discourage intimate association with the other sex except under proper
auspices. Pray do not mistake me. I should like Jane-Anne to have
plenty of young male society but not to saunter about the roads
_tête-à-tête_ with any one youth during term time. If you can see your
way to oblige me in this I shall be grateful.

“Very faithfully yours,
“DOROTHY WILLOWS.”

Mr. Wycherly read the note twice very carefully, folded it, put it back
in the envelope and, without waiting to finish his port, went for his
hat. He crossed the road. Mr. Gordon, seated as usual at his open
window with Gantry Bill in attendance, saw him coming, turned extremely
red and went himself to open the door, without waiting for his visitor
to knock.

Jane-Anne, seated at her studies in the parlour, also saw Mr. Wycherly’s
pilgrimage across the road, and was filled with satisfaction that her
debt was to be so speedily discharged.

“Are you Mr. Gordon?” Mr. Wycherly asked as the door was opened before
he could knock.

“I am; will you come in, sir?”

Mr. Wycherly accepted the invitation and came in. The experience caused
his heart to beat a little faster. It was so many years since he had
been in an undergraduate’s room. The past came back with a rush. What
a lot of water had flowed under Magdalen Bridge since those dear, far
off, happy, and, afterwards, most miserable days.

“Won’t you sit down, sir?” young Gordon said hospitably.

Mr. Wycherly sat down. “I come,” he said, “to discharge a debt,” and
laid a shilling on the table beside him, “and I must thank you for
carrying home the eggs for my ward.”

“It’s very good of you,” the young man mumbled, looking much confused;
“it was nothing really; you see, my dog was the cause of the accident.
I was bound to replace the eggs.”

“My ward begged me to pay her debt at once. That is my reason for
invading you at such an unseasonable hour, but since you have received
me so hospitably, I wonder if you would further allow me to ask you a
question, Mr. Gordon?”

There was no light in the room save the grey gloaming of a May evening.
Across the road Mr. Wycherly could see a brilliant, luminous square
defining his own parlour window; he was too short-sighted to see the
studious figure seated at the table, but he perceived that she must be
plainly visible to those possessing normal sight.

“Certainly, sir,” young Gordon said politely.

“You probably”—here Mr. Wycherly turned a kind, inquiring gaze upon his
young host—”have sisters?” Mr. Gordon bowed. “I have been out of the
way of these things for so long that it is possible I may make
mistakes—I shall be extremely obliged if you will tell me—quite frankly,
do you think we do wrong in allowing Miss Stavrides to walk about Oxford
by herself?”

George Gordon looked very hot indeed. The last thing he had dreamt of
was that this dignified, white-haired old gentleman should consult him
about anything. Honest himself, he was touched at the evident
earnestness and simplicity that craved his opinion. Acting almost
automatically, he lit the gas and stood well in the centre of the light,
looking fairly and squarely at his guest.

“Since you do me the honour to ask me, sir, I should say that there is
not the smallest harm in allowing Miss Stavrides to walk alone anywhere.
If she were my sister, I shouldn’t be a bit afraid because, you see,
she’s not that sort——”

“Yes,” said Mr. Wycherly; “please tell me why.”

“It’s a little difficult,” the young man continued, “without sounding a
bit of a cad—but it’s like this. She walks along thinking her own
thoughts, and if she looks at you—she seems to look through you. Now,
there are girls, nice girls, pretty girls—ladies—quite ladies, you
know—and yet you know they’ve seen you. Well, all I can say is, you’re
jolly well sure Miss Stavrides hasn’t—and so it’s no good.”

“And yet,” Mr. Wycherly said smoothly, “she seemed to be aware of your
existence.”

George Gordon thrust his hands deep into his pockets, but he still
looked Mr. Wycherly straight in the eyes.

“She couldn’t help that. My dog—somehow—upon my honour, I don’t know
how or why, seems awfully fond of her. He knocked her down jumping on
her playfully, when she didn’t expect it—and what could I do? But—I
think it’s only fair to tell you, I’ve been dying to know her ever since
I came to these rooms, and I hope I shall see her again. She is, I
suppose you know it, sir, an extremely attractive girl, because she’s so
unusual.”

Mr. Wycherly rose and held out his hand:

“I am greatly obliged to you,” he said. “You have been very frank and
helpful. It will give me great pleasure if you will come and see us—and
as a personal favour, I would ask you not to walk in the streets with
her again, for her sake.”

“I should like awfully to come, sir. It’s very kind of you. It’s my
last term, so you won’t be troubled with me for long.”

Gantry Bill rose slowly and majestically from his place in the window,
dropped to the floor, and came and sniffed at Mr. Wycherly. George
Gordon pulled himself together with a mighty effort, and said somewhat
huskily: “You know, sir, I think she ought to have a blind or something.
Anyone can see her.”

Mr. Wycherly stooped to pat Gantry Bill.

“I am still very much in your debt,” he said.

* * * * *

That summer Montagu went in the vacation with a reading party to
Brittany. Mr. Wycherly took Edmund and Jane-Anne to Burnhead, in
Midlothian, where he had spent so many years, and Mrs. Dew went to stay
with Lord Dursley’s housekeeper.

The minister lived in the house that had belonged to Miss Esperance; Mr.
Wycherly and the two young people lodged with her old servant, Robina.
While they were there Curly came to see the minister, who was his
father, and during the week he spent in Burnhead, he made Jane-Anne,
through Mr. Wycherly, the offer of a definite engagement in a company he
was going on tour with after Christmas. She would, of course, at first
only walk on. After that she would be entrusted with small parts and
then—her chance might come. The company was good in more senses than
one. The actresses were ladies, two of them married to members of the
company, and Jane-Anne would be well looked after.

The project flung Mr. Wycherly into a perfect tempest of worry. Had
Curly so much as hinted the possibility of such a thing to Jane-Anne
herself, he would have felt that he had just cause for grievance. But
he knew that Curly had done nothing of the kind, and that it lay with
him, and with him only, to suppress or put before her this, to him,
detestable plan.

There could be but one outcome. Mr. Wycherly’s sense of honour would
not allow him to conceal from Jane-Anne an opportunity he feared she
would be only too ready to grasp. And that same sense precluded his
laying the matter before her himself. He knew that he was so biassed
that he must place the whole scheme in a most unattractive light; and
his very faculty for seeing all round a question prevented his
expressing the actively hostile views he most certainly held.
Therefore, he left Curly to lay the question before her.

This Curly did, and actuated, perhaps, by a somewhat similar spirit to
Mr. Wycherly’s, he hid from the girl nothing of the disagreeables she
was likely to encounter. He painted the life of little more than a
super with a travelling company as the reverse of pleasant. He spared
her no sordid detail, he exaggerated rather than minimised all she would
have to endure.

With downcast eyes and lips that trembled a little, she heard him in
silence to the end. Then she turned her large gaze upon him, and asked:

“But shall I learn things?”

“It is the only way to learn things.”

“Then, if the master will let me, I will come.”

“He doesn’t like it. He hates the idea. It will make him very unhappy.
He will miss you dreadfully.”

“Montagu will be at New College then. He will be always in and out. I
wouldn’t go if the master would be all alone. But with Montagu there—it
makes all the difference——”

“I don’t know even now that he will consent.”

“I think,” said Jane-Anne, “that he will allow me to go, because he is
so just.”

But Mr. Wycherly refused to give a definite opinion.

“We will wait till December,” he said.

So Jane-Anne went back to school, and Mr. Wycherly sent for Miss Willows
and explained the situation to her. To his surprise and dismay she
sided with Jane-Anne. This was fine of Miss Willows, for she had set
her heart on Jane-Anne’s doing brilliantly at Lady Margaret Hall. But
she understood the girl. She realised her powers and her limitations,
and she was one who, in looking into the future for her girls, would
fain have them hitch their horses to the stars. She believed that
Jane-Anne might become a fairly successful teacher, but she was certain
that she had it in her to become a great actress. Miss Willows detested
mediocrity.

An unexpected ally for Mr. Wycherly appeared in the person of George
Gordon, who, having got a moderate degree, came back to Oxford to see
everybody before he settled in London to read for the bar. With him he
brought Gantry Bill as an offering for Jane-Anne, who embraced the dog
fondly, exclaiming:

“I shall love him, if the master will keep him for me, but I don’t
expect I shall be here after Christmas, you know, except when I can get
away for a little holiday.”

“Not here?” he exclaimed. “Where are you going—abroad to study?”

“No, I’m probably going on the stage—at least, to study for the stage.”

“The stage. _You?_”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s unthinkable, because I hate it, because—I want you so
myself.”

Jane-Anne looked very serious, but she didn’t blush or show any signs of
confusion.

“I shouldn’t make a nice wife,” she remarked.

“I think you would make an adorable wife—but, of course, we couldn’t
marry just yet,” he added honestly; “I’ve not got enough to make you
comfortable; but we could wait—and I’ll work like the dickens and—you’re
very young.”

“For the matter of that, so are you, but it isn’t a question of youth or
age. There’s something I’ve got to do, and I must do it. Marrying and
things like that must come after. I fancy”—here she raised her solemn,
candid eyes—”everything will come after—always.”

George Gordon looked so miserable that Gantry Bill went to him,
stretched up and licked one of the hands that hung so limp and
melancholy at his sides.

“Mr. Wycherly would have liked it,” he said sadly. “I spoke to him last
night, and he gave me leave to come to-day. He would have allowed us to
be engaged.”

Jane-Anne gave a little laugh. “I am engaged,” she said, “to Mr.
Wendover’s touring company.”

“Damn Mr. Wendover!” exclaimed her angry suitor. “I’m awfully sorry,
but you can’t think how I hate it. Will you keep Bill? Mr. Wycherly
said he might stay here. I can’t have him in London, he’d be so
miserable.”

“We shall love Bill,” she said gently.

Towards Christmas a bazaar was held in which Mrs. Methuen was much
interested, and among the side-shows was a little duologue which she and
Jane-Anne played together. It happened that Curly’s company was in
Oxford at the time, and one afternoon he dragged Mr. Wycherly to the
bazaar to see Jane-Anne act.

Now, although Mr. Wycherly had seen her dance hundreds of times, he had
never seen her act. He could not screw his courage to the point of
facing the crowd of parents assembled at the school theatricals, and
Mrs. Methuen had never yet induced him to come and see the little plays
she was so fond of getting up in aid of various charities.

This time, however, wearied by Curly’s importunities and fortified by
his company, he was persuaded, and found himself seated in front of a
red curtain, in the second row of chairs, while, pince-nez on nose, he
studied a programme which bore the legend “A Joint Household.”

Jane-Anne had gone to lunch with Mrs. Methuen so as to be ready for the
play which came fairly early in the afternoon.

The noisy piano ceased, the curtain was rung up, and the two ladies,
who, with their husbands, had agreed to share a house for the summer
holidays, one after the other appeared upon the scene.

Mrs. Methuen was unmistakable; pretty, eager, much concerned for the
future comfort of her absent lord.

But the other——

Mr. Wycherly was both disappointed and bewildered.

Something must have happened to Jane-Anne. Could she be ill? This tall,
angular person in spectacles, with what he secretly stigmatized as a
“bombazine manner,” must be some elderly lady imported at the last
moment to play the part. That she played it uncommonly well did not
concern Mr. Wycherly; he was anxious about Jane-Anne.

What could have happened to the child?

The play was quite amusing. The lady with the bombazine manner raised a
laugh whenever she opened her lips, but Mr. Wycherly couldn’t feel
interested. He was worried.

It must be some sudden and prostrating headache that had prevented her
appearance. Yet when did he ever remember Jane-Anne to have a headache
when theatricals were to the fore?

The little play soon came to an end amidst enthusiastic applause. Mr.
Wycherly thought it rather unfeeling of Curly to clap so vigorously. He
didn’t seem a bit anxious about Jane-Anne.

The plaudits were so prolonged that the curtain was raised again and the
two ladies took their call. She of the spectacles and wispy grey hair
dragged into a tight knob at the back, bowed stiffly and ungraciously as
befitted her character, but just as she reached the wings she snatched
off her spectacles with one hand and with the other deliberately blew a
kiss to Mr. Wycherly.

There was no mistaking it. The kiss was for him and for no one else,
and the eyes hitherto discreetly hidden behind the spectacles were
exceeding dark and young and merry.

Then it was that Mr. Wycherly realised that she had not failed at the
last moment, this extraordinary Jane-Anne of his. She was the lady of
the bombazine manner.

When they reached the street he murmured to Curly in almost awe-struck
tones, “And I never recognised her at all till the curtain went up the
second time.”

“So I saw,” said Curly.

“She looked so old, so severe, so hard somehow and unlovely.”

“For the time being, she was Mrs. Tallet, you see,” Curly explained.

“It wasn’t her appearance only, her whole atmosphere seemed so grasping
and grim.”

“That,” Curly remarked sententiously, “is acting.”

* * * * *

It was gala day at the dancing-class, and Mr. Wycherly sat on the raised
daïs reserved for parents and onlookers. He had come to watch Jane-Anne
as a pupil for the last time.

There were many “fancy dances” performed by fresh-faced girls who
manipulated their accordion-pleated skirts with a certain pretty pride
in their achievement—all but Jane-Anne.

She, slender and dark, with little oval face and shadowy heavy hair,
drawn back from her forehead, with the upward sweep of Botticelli’s
angels—she danced!

She wore a plain little frock of black chiffon, caught in round her
slender waist by a narrow black cord.

Mrs. Methuen had chosen the dress, and it was full of distinction in its
dainty severity; such a plain little dress among its rainbow-hued,
fresh-millinered companions.

And how she danced!

Floating to and fro on the waves of sound like an autumn leaf blown by
the wind.

Suddenly, by one of those flashes of telepathy that on occasion lighten
across the path of all of us, Mr. Wycherly became acutely conscious that
his was not the only soul stirred by this perfect dancing. And the
knowledge that his enthusiastic appreciation was shared stirred in him
no feeling save that of uncomfortable foreboding.

He put on his eye-glasses and looked across the room. There, near the
door, he saw Curly accompanied by a small, fair man in a fur coat, a
clean-shaven man whose full blue eyes expressed both interest and
pleasure, pleasure keen as his own had been. And there was subtly
communicated to Mr. Wycherly a sense of impending change, and a
sensation of excited interrogation, so strong that he found himself
mentally demanding: “What will he do?”

And the ecstasy with which he had at first watched Jane-Anne was
interrupted and invaded by a host of alien doubts and speculations.

For he knew that the fates were busy weaving, and that the central
figure in their fabric was that of the slender girl in black who danced.

And nothing happened.

Curly and the man in the fur coat went away in a few minutes, and
neither of them had attempted to speak to Jane-Anne when her dance
ended.

But, all the same, the end was the end Mr. Wycherly had refused to face.
When it actually came to the point of granting or withholding his
permission, he bade her God speed and sent her forth. The flame in her
shone luminous and clear; there was no questioning it; and it seemed to
him the better part to feed the fire that burned so steadily on the
altar of her high endeavour.

Mrs. Dew neither approved nor opposed. For some years now she had felt
Jane-Anne was growing beyond her; always incomprehensible, she was now
on a plane that her good aunt could only touch by means of the steady
affection she had always felt. That way she could always reach
Jane-Anne. Since her niece was not to be a respectable servant in a
good family, it seemed to Mrs. Dew that all other careers were equally
chimerical and dangerous. The girl might try this play-acting. If it
failed—why, the master would have her back. Mrs. Dew was sure of that,
and was therefore less anxious than might have been expected.

With a diffidence she had never shown before, she followed Jane-Anne
into her bedroom the afternoon before she left Holywell, and stood at
the end of the bed watching the tall girl on her knees beside the new
trunk she herself had given her.

“Look here, Jane-Anne,” she said suddenly, and because she was very much
in earnest she lapsed into the broad Gloucestershire of her youth. “I’m
not one as can talk religious—a good sharp scoldin’s more in my line—but
I’d be glad that you should remember as you come of a most respectable
family. There’s bin Burfords in Great Stanley for two ’undred year, and
so far as we do know, never a light woman amongst ’em.”

“Two hundred years,” Jane-Anne echoed. “Why, then I must have ancestors,
after all.”

“You can call ’em ancestors, if you do please,” Mrs. Dew continued; “we
do call ’em forbears where I comes from. Well, as I was sayin’, I’d
have you remember, an’ if you feels carried away and giddy-like, just
think as there’s a hold aunt down in Oxford as sets great store by
you——”

Mrs. Dew’s voice broke; Jane-Anne rose hastily from her knees and ran to
her aunt, and took her in her arms.

“Aunt, dear,” she said, “I will remember.”

“I never ’eard,” Mrs. Dew went on in a muffled tone, “anything to speak
of about your father’s people. For all I know, he might ’ave come from
some of them ’eathen gods and goddesses, bad lots they were, and it’s
that as makes we so worrited. Burford blood you can depend on—but I’m
sure as it’s the Grecian comin’ out as drives you to play-acting.”

Very gently Jane-Anne withdrew her arms from about her aunt.

“I know I’m often silly,” she said humbly, “but you mustn’t blame my
father for that.”

“You’re as the Lard made you,” Mrs. Dew remarked drily, “and you can but
try and make the best of a bad job. But remember this—if you feels ill,
or if you wants me any time for any reason, a telegram’ll bring me just
every bit as quick as I can put foot to the ground and find somebody to
do for the master while I be away. You bear that in mind.”

“You’re very good to me, aunt,” said Jane-Anne, and flung her arms round
Mrs. Dew’s neck once more.

She and Mr. Wycherly went to evensong in the cathedral. It was the
fourth of January, and the “proper psalms” were the twenty-second and
the twenty-third. Jane-Anne shivered with a chilly sense of foreboding
as the wailing chant rang out, echoing eerily in the great arched roof.

“_I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my
heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax._”

Presently the minor changed to something infinitely serene and sweet and
comforting; and to Jane-Anne standing timidly on the threshold of her
new life, there was promise of help that could not fail her in the
assurance:

“_The Lord is my shepherd therefore can I lack nothing._” And at the
final verse: “_But Thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the
days of my life…_” she thrust her little hand into that of her old
friend, and his closed over it with a firm and understanding clasp.

When the day, so charged with various emotions, came to an end, and she
went to bid him good-night, she found him standing on the hearth-rug in
the firelight. Montagu had gone for a few days to a school-friend
before he came up to New, and they were all alone.

Mr. Wycherly’s lamp was turned out, but the room was full of warm, rosy
light, and Jane-Anne remembered how she had looked in and longed
wistfully to share in his kind glance, all those long years ago. They
had had many talks together, those two, over the coming change, and each
knew the other’s hopes and fears. The old must realise that farewells
are their portion. Only a month or two before Mr. Wycherly had seen
Edmund set out on his first voyage, and now this other child was sailing
forth on the great sea of life, leaving him behind to dream and pray
that fortune and fair winds might enwheel them both.

She came and stood beside him, laying light, gentle hands upon his
shoulders, looking at him the while with the kind, faithful eyes he
loved so well.

“Dear,” she said, “do you know at all how I feel?”

“My child,” he answered, “you feel, I know, everything that is best and
most beautiful, but there is just one thing that I would like you to
write upon the tablets of your heart, and that is, the remembrance that
here, in Oxford, there is an old man who would give his life’s blood to
serve you; to whom all that concerns you is absolutely vital. Will you
remember always that, whether you are glad or sorry, successful or
unfortunate, most of all if ever—which God forbid—you should be
unfortunate—your home is here.”

“I will remember,” said Jane-Anne, and kissed him.

No one went with her next day to London. She preferred to go alone.
Curly was to meet her, and she was to start that night with the rest of
the company for the town in the north where their first engagement was.

Gantry Bill wandered disconsolately about the house in Holywell all that
day. He could settle nowhere. His beautiful tranquillity was quite
broken up. He pattered to and fro, and whined faintly at intervals.
Mrs. Dew tempted him in vain with the choicest morsels in his special
bowl.

At last, after dinner, he sought Mr. Wycherly in his study, scratching
vigorously at the door until he was admitted. Once in, he walked about
sniffing dubiously; finally, going to Mr. Wycherly, and with his paws
across his knees, leant heavily upon him, and looked up in his face,
plainly asking, “Where is she?”

This was Gantry Bill’s favourite attitude with Jane-Anne. He was too
big and heavy for her to nurse, but he loved to stand on his hind legs
and lean his body across her knees, while she, generally immersed in a
book, absently stroked his head.

“She’s gone, Gantry Bill,” Mr. Wycherly said, in answer to his look.
“She has gone away and left us, and we must just make the best of it.”

Gantry Bill gave a sudden lurch and arranged his whole heavy person
across Mr. Wycherly’s knees. He weighed forty-four pounds, but somehow
Mr. Wycherly had not the heart to drive him away.

Instead, he stroked him absently, and murmured:

“Say I’m weary, say I’m sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I’m growing old, but add—
Jenny kissed me.”