THE CHILD

When young Sir Harry had made that laughing appeal to the figure framed
in the square of orange light above him, and turned away into the
shadows, he had already forgotten that there had been a witness to his
escapade.

It was no escapade to him, but a serious quest, about which played all
the warm palpitations and eager emotions of high romance. To-night, if
ever, with the earth moving towards the soft riot of spring, with the
air still and brooding as if summer were already here, though sharp and
clean, scoured by the wind and washed to gentleness again by the showers
of April, with the moonlight so strong that in the shadows of the trees
there was no darkness, but diffused and quivering light hardly less
bright than the light of day, and to the eyes of the spirit infinitely
more discerning—surely to-night he might hope to see the fairies dancing
in their rings, and the little men stealing in and out among the
tree-branches!

He longed passionately to see the fairies. The beauty of the earth
meant so much to him. All through his childhood his love for it had
grown and grown till it had become almost a pain to him. For though it
meant so much he did not know what it meant. It had always seemed to be
leading him up to something, some great discovery, or some great joy—at
least some great emotion—which would give it just that meaning that
would tune his soul to it and entrench him safely behind some knowledge,
hidden from mortal eyes, where he could survey life as it was, perfect
and blissful, and withal secret. The fairies, if he could only look upon
them once, would give him the secret. Surely they would not withhold
themselves from him on such a night as this.

He pictured himself lying on the warm beech-mast in the shadows of some
great tree that stood sentinel over a stretch of moonlit lawn, watching
the delicate gossamer figures at their revels, their iridescent wings
softly gleaming, their petalled skirts flying, their tiny limbs
twinkling; and perhaps he would hear the high tenuous chime of their
laughter as they gave themselves up to their delicious merriment. He
would lie very still, hardly breathing. The mortal grossness which he
felt to be in him should not cast its shadow over their bright
evanescent spirit. He would keep, oh, so still, and just watch, and
grow happier and happier, and at last—know. The grossness would be
purged from him. When the moon drooped and the fairy dancers melted
away, he would have seen behind the veil. After that he would never
suffer again from the perplexing thought that there was some great thing
hidden from him, that just when beauty gripped his soul and seemed to
have something to tell him, and he stood ready to receive the message,
there was only silence and a sense of loss, which made him sad. Nature
would speak to him, as she had always seemed to be speaking to him, but
now he would understand, and answer, and life would be more beautiful
than it had ever been before.

He had always hugged secrets to himself ever since he could remember,
secrets that it would have seemed to him the deepest shame that any one
should surprise. Once on a summer’s evening, when he had been lying in
his little cot by his mother’s bed, whiling away the long daylight hour
by telling himself a most absorbing story, which at that time he was
going through from night to night, he had become so worked up by it that
he carried on the dialogue in a clear audible voice. A warning knock
came upon the bedroom door, and that particular story was cut short
never to be resumed. It was the time when his mother and grandmother
were dining, and his nurse and all the other servants were down below.
He had not thought that it was possible that he could have been
overheard. He had been acting a garden story. The characters were the
Garden, the flowers and himself. The Garden was a very kind and
gracious lady who led him, a little boy called Arnold, with black
straight hair—he preferred that sort to his own fair curls—to one flower
after another, and told him whether they had been good or naughty. The
flowers were mostly children, but a few, such as geraniums and fuchsias,
were grown up. The geraniums never took any notice of him, and he did
not like them on that account, but looked the other way when they were
rebuked. This fortunately happened but seldom, as they usually behaved
with propriety, though stiff and obstinate in character. The roses he
often pleaded for, because they were so beautiful. Vanity was their
besetting sin, and the Garden often had to tell them—in language much
the same as that used by the Vicar in church—that they were no more in
her sight than the humblest and poorest flowers. But he could not bear
to see their beautiful petals scattered, which happened as a punishment
if they had flaunted themselves beyond hope of forgiveness. It was
coming to be his idea, as the story progressed, that some day he would
make a strong appeal to the Garden to abolish this punishment
altogether. Then no flowers would ever die, but only go to sleep in the
winter, and he would be the great hero of the flowers, with hair blacker
and straighter than ever, and whenever he went among them they would bow
and curtsey to him, but nobody would see them doing it except himself.

On this June evening it was a tall Madonna lily for whom he was pleading
in such an impassioned manner. Lilies were very lovely girls, not quite
children and not quite grown-up. He had a sentimental affection for
them. He would see them incline towards one another as he came near,
and hear, or rather make them whisper to one another: “Here is that dear
little boy. How good he is! And isn’t his hair dark and smooth! I
should like to kiss him.” (Had he said that aloud, just before the
knock came? He would never be able to look the world in the face again
if that speech had been heard.) The Garden had accused the lily of
leaving her sisters and the place where she belonged to go and talk to a
groom in the stables. She might have been kicked by a horse. An
example must be made. No little treats, no sugar on her bread and
butter, no favourite stories told her, for a week. The lily had cried,
and said she had meant no harm, and wouldn’t do it again. He had
adjured her not to cry, in very moving terms, which it made him hot all
over to imagine overheard, and the lily had said, in no apparent
connection with the question under discussion, but in a loud and clear
voice: “Arnold is brave and strong; he can run faster than all other
boys in the world.”

It was just then that the knock came. He was unhappy about it for days,
and looked in the faces of all the servants to see if there was any sign
of the derision he must have brought upon himself, but could find none,
and presently comforted himself with the idea that it was Santa Claus
who had knocked at the door; but he dropped the drama of the flowers,
and afterwards only whispered the speaking parts of other dramas.

It was not from any lack of love for those about him that he kept his
soul’s adventures to himself. Of sympathy with them he might
instinctively have felt a lack, but he loved everybody with whom he had
to do, and everybody loved him. His mother was nearest to him, though
his grandmother was felt to be the head of all things and of all people.
His mother showed jealousy towards her, but not in her presence. The
child divined this, and responded to her craving for his caresses when
he was alone with her by little endearments which were very sweet to
her. “You and me together, Mummy,” he would whisper, snuggling up to
her, and stroke her face and kiss her, in a way that he never did when
his grandmother was there. He must have divined too that he was the
centre of existence for his grandmother, but she never petted him or
invited his caresses, though her face showed pleasure when he leant
against her knee and prattled to her, which he did without any fear, and
as if it was natural that they two should have much to say to one
another.

During his earliest days his mother often wept stormily, and there was
great antagonism between her and the old nurse, who had also nursed his
father. But when he was five years old the nurse suddenly went away,
and his mother’s weepings, which had saddened and sometimes frightened
him, as she clutched him to her and rocked to and fro over him, ceased,
so that he presently forgot them. She did much for him herself that the
nurse had done before, with the help of a girl from the village, who
became a close friend of his, though not in a way to cause his mother
jealousy.

Eliza was slow and rather stupid, but she could tell half a dozen
stories. She told them in stilted fashion, and never varied the manner,
and hardly the words, of her telling. If she did so, he would correct
her. By and by she became rather like a dull priest intoning a liturgy,
known so well that there was no call to attend to the meeting. He could
see after all that himself, and wanted no variations or emotion of hers
to get between him and the pictures that her monotonous drone projected
on the curtain of his brain. He was the hero of all the stories
himself, and carried them far beyond the bounds of the liturgy. As Jack
the Giant-killer, he engaged with foes unknown to fairy lore. As the
Beast he drew such interest from his mastery over other beasts that his
transformation into a Prince with straight black hair was always being
postponed, and was finally dropped out of his own story altogether,
together with Beauty, who had become somewhat of a meddler with things
that she couldn’t be expected to understand. He was Cinderella in the
story of that time, because of riding in the coach made out of a
pumpkin, and the mice turned into horses, but never felt at home in the
character until he turned the story round and gave the leading part to
the Prince, with Cinderella’s adventures adapted to male habits and
dignity.

With Eliza in attendance he sometimes played for hours together in the
garden, and he could get away from her if he was careful never to be
right out of her sight or hearing. It was then that the drama of the
garden and the flowers began, but when it came to an end he returned to
the fairy stories.

His mother told him stories too at his earnest pleading. But they were
never the same twice running and had little point for him. He much
preferred Eliza’s rigid version of the classical stories, and the others
were all about beautiful girls who married very handsome, noble, rich
men, but the men never did anything except love the girls to distraction
and give them beautiful presents. There was no ground for his
imagination to work on, except in the matter of the presents, and of
these he demanded ever growing catalogues, suggesting many additions of
his own, so that if his mother remembered these and kept to them, there
was some interest to be got out of her stories, but not enough to vie
with that of Eliza’s repertoire.

His grandmother had no stories, but when he was a little older she told
him about his ancestors, who had done a good deal of fighting at one
time or another throughout the centuries, which gave him plenty of
material. He knew that she got her information from books in the
library, and he was encouraged to persevere with his letters so that he
would be able to read those books for himself. He gained from her the
impression that his family was above other families, and that in some
way which he didn’t quite understand, seeing that he was subject to her,
and to his mother, and even to Eliza, its superiority was also his in a
special measure. He must never do anything that would lessen it. He
must not be too familiar with servants, and especially with grooms in
the stable. He would hang his head at this, for it was the weak point
in his behaviour. He was apt to be beguiled by the society of grooms in
the stable, to the extent even of using expressions unallowable in the
society of his equals. But though he was to bear himself high, he was
to deal kindly with those at the same time beneath him and around him;
and he was to look upon Royd all his life as the place to which he
belonged. He would go away from it sometimes when he was older, but he
must never be away for long, and never get to like being away. This was
what young men did sometimes, and it was not good for them. It was not
right.




Such exordiums as these, varied in manner but never in principle,
continued throughout his childhood, and had a strong effect upon him. A
child has a natural preoccupation with the question of right and wrong
and it fitted in with all that Harry had learnt for himself that it was
right for him to be at Royd and would be wrong for him to be away. He
could not imagine any other place that would suit him better, or indeed
nearly so well. His mother would sometimes talk to him, when he grew
older, of the lights and the movement and the heartening crowds of
London. She would do it half furtively, and he understood, without
being told, that he must keep the fact of her doing so at all from his
grandmother. But he had no wish to talk about it. The picture did not
please him. He gained the impression of London as a dirty noisy place,
and Royd shone all the more brightly in comparison with it. His mother
never mentioned the theatre.

She talked to him sometimes about his father. He had been a soldier—a
very brave soldier—like all the rest of the Brents. Harry would be a
soldier himself some day, but she prayed that he would not have to go
out and fight. He would wear a beautiful red coat with a sash and a
sword, and a noble bearskin on his head. There was a photograph of his
father, not in this uniform, but in service kit, taken just after his
marriage. It showed a good-looking young man, amiable but weak. It was
the only photograph of him that Mrs. Brent had in her room. Lady Brent
had many photographs of him, but this one was not among them. As a
child he had been very like Harry. Lady-Brent seldom mentioned him, and
to her daughter-in-law never. Harry knew after a time, as children come
to know such things, that she had loved him very dearly. She had all
those reminders of his childhood and youth about her. His mother had
only the one. She had known him for a few weeks. All the rest of his
life had belonged to his own mother, and she was shut out of it. Her
references to him, indeed, were hardly more than perfunctory. The poor
bewildered little lady had loved him, and looked to him, perhaps, to
translate her to a more glamorous life. The life of dignity was hers,
but without him, and sometimes it lay very heavy upon her. But she had
her child. Nothing mattered much as long as she was allowed to love him
and to keep his love.

A French nursery governess came when Harry was five years old, Eliza,
who showed great jealousy of her, not unmixed with contempt for her
absurd speech and foreign ways, being also retained. She was a gentle
little thing, and, when she had got over her homesickness, bright and
gay. She loved the child dearly, and he was soon prattling to her in
her own language, piping little French songs, and repeating verses with
his hands behind his back and his head on one side, to the great pride
of his mother and grandmother. Mrs. Brent made a surreptitious friend
of Mademoiselle, and even went so far as to take lessons of her in
French. Lady Brent spoke French with an accent “_tout a fait
distingué_.” Mademoiselle had observed that this was the mark of “_la
vraie grande dame Anglaise_” and perhaps Mrs. Brent imagined that the
accomplishment would bring her more into line. But it was irksome to
sit down to grammar and exercises, and somehow she “never could get her
tongue round the queer sounds.” It was easier to help Mademoiselle on
with her English, and soon they had their heads together constantly,
comparing notes about the life of Blois and the life of London, which
was so gay and so different from this life of the château, so
magnificent but so dull and so always the same. But Harry was not to
know that either of them felt like that about it, and the little French
girl had enough of the spirit of romance in her to judge his
surroundings of castle and park, and wide tract of country over which by
and by he was to rule, as fitting to him. It was, after all, the
bourgeois life that she and Mrs. Brent pined for, the one in France, the
other in England. She recognized that, but when she intimated as much
to Mrs. Brent that lady was up in arms at once, and the intimacy between
them nearly came to an end. Let it be understood that the life she had
known in London was very different from the life Mademoiselle had known
in a provincial French city. Hers had been the life of the great lady,
in London as well as at Royd, and it was that part of the great lady’s
life that she missed. Perhaps Mademoiselle, in her ignorance of English
customs, believed it, perhaps she didn’t; but she adopted the required
basis of conversation, and the friendship continued. Mrs. Brent took
little trouble to assert her gentility, when once it was accepted, and
spoke often of her family, who lived in Kentish Town, where she had been
so happy, in a way that must have given Mademoiselle some curious ideas
of the ways of the British aristocracy, supposing her to have believed
in the claim set up.

But all this passed over the child’s head. Mademoiselle had stories to
tell him of the old nobility of Touraine, which she was clever enough to
connect in his mind with the stories his grandmother told him of his own
knightly forbears. It was from that life he had sprung. The ancient
glories of the French châteaux were allied to those of his noble English
castle. The romance and chivalry were the same. Lady Brent approved
very highly of Mademoiselle, and when she went back to France after two
years, to fulfil the marriage contract that her parents had made for
her, gave her a present which added substantially to her _dot_.

Then Mr. Wilbraham came, and Harry began his education in earnest.

Lady Brent had gone up to London to find a successor for Mademoiselle.
She was to be a highly educated Englishwoman, who was to give place to a
tutor in three or four years’ time. Harry was not to go to school; he
was to spend the whole of his boyhood at Royd, but he was to be taught
all the things that boys of his class learnt, except the things that
Lady Brent didn’t want him to learn—including that precocious knowledge
of the world which had entangled his father, and in effect brought Mrs.
Brent into the family.

Lady Brent brought Mr. Wilbraham back with her, and never explained why
she had changed her plan. In some things she made a confidante of her
daughter-in-law; in others she acted as if she had no more to say in her
child’s upbringing than Eliza. And Mrs. Brent never thought of asking
her for an explanation of anything if she volunteered none.

Mr. Wilbraham was then a dejected young man of four or five and twenty.
He volunteered no explanation of his substitution for the lady of high
education either; nor, indeed, of his past history. It was a long time
before Mrs. Brent, who liked to find out things about people, and
especially anything that indicated their social status, knew that his
father had been a clergyman, and that he expected some day to be a
clergyman himself. And that was all that she did know, until he had been
at Royd for years, and seemed likely to be there for ever; for gradually
he dropped talking about taking orders. She had an idea that there was
some secret between him and Lady Brent, but the idea died away as time
went on, and at last he told her, quite casually, that he had gained his
post at Royd through a Scholastic Agency. Lady Brent had gone there for
a tutor, and she had engaged him. That was all. It did not explain why
she had changed her mind; but by that time her change of mind had been
almost forgotten. Mr. Wilbraham was an integral part of life at Royd
Castle.

Harry liked him from the first. He was a good teacher, and there was
never any trouble about lessons. Outside lesson time he was not expected
to be on duty, and when the boy grew older their companionship was
entirely friendly and unofficial. Mr. Wilbraham introduced Harry to all
the rich lore of Greek mythology. Here was matter for romance, indeed!
Royd became peopled with nymphs and dryads and satyrs, and fabulous but
undreaded monsters. Harry knew that Diana hunted the deer in the park
when the moon shone; he often heard Pan fluting in the woods, and
centaurs galloping over the turf. When he was taken over to Rington
Cove, six miles away, he saw the rock upon which the mermaids sat and
combed their hair, and on the yellow sands the print of the nereid’s
dancing feet. It was all very real to him, and Mr. Wilbraham never even
smiled at his fancies. That was one of the reasons why he liked him.