Across the Stream by E. F. Benson is a classic of supernatural occult fiction and ghost story. There is a very large class of persons alive to-day who believe that not only is communication with the dead possible, but that they themselves have had actual experience of it. Many of these are eminent in scientific research, and on any other subject the world in general would accept their evidence. There is possibly a larger class of persons who hold that all such communications, if genuine, come not from the dead but from the devil. This is the taught opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. A third class, far more numerous than both of these, is sure that any one who holds either of these beliefs is a dupe of conjurers, or the victim of his own disordered brain. This type of robust intellect has, during the last ten decades, affirmed that hypnotism, aviation in machines heavier than air, telepathy, wireless telegraphy, and other non-proved phenomena, are superstitious and unscientific balderdash. In an earlier century it was equally certain that the earth did not go round the sun. It is, happily, never disconcerted by the frequency with which the superstitions and impossibilities of one generation become the science of the next. The first part of this book may be accepted by the first of these three classes, the second by the second, and none of it by the third. Its aim is to state rather than solve the subject with which it deals, and to suggest that the dead and the devil alike may be able to communicate with the living.
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By E. F. Benson
There is a very large class of persons alive to-day who believe that not only is communication with the dead possible, but that they themselves have had actual experience of it. Many of these are eminent in scientific research, and on any other subject the world in general would accept their evidence.
There is possibly a larger class of persons who hold that all such communications, if genuine, come not from the dead but from the devil. This is the taught opinion of the Roman Catholic Church.
A third class, far more numerous than both of these, is sure that any one who holds either of these beliefs is a dupe of conjurers, or the victim of his own disordered brain. This type of robust intellect has, during the last ten decades, affirmed that hypnotism, aviation in machines heavier than air, telepathy, wireless telegraphy, and other non-proved phenomena, are superstitious and unscientific balderdash. In an earlier century it was equally certain that the earth did not go round the sun. It is, happily, never disconcerted by the frequency with which the superstitions and impossibilities of one generation become the science of the next.
The first part of this book may be accepted by the first of these three classes, the second by the second, and none of it by the third. Its aim is to state rather than solve the subject with which it deals, and to suggest that the dead and the devil alike may be able to communicate with the living.
Certain scenes, certain pictures of his very early years of childhood, stood out for Archie like clear sunlit peaks above the dim clouds that shrouded the time when the power of memory was only beginning to germinate. He had no doubt (and was probably right about it) as to which the earliest of those was: it was the face of his nurse Blessington, leaning over his crib. She held a candle in her hand which a little dazzled him, but the sight of her face, tender and anxious, and divinely reassuring, was the point of that memory. He had been asleep, and had awoke with a start, and, finding himself alone in the midst of the immense desolation of the dark that pressed on him like an invader from all sides, he had lifted up his voice and yelled. Then, as by a conjuring-trick, Blessington had appeared with her comforting presence that quite robbed the dark of its terrors. It must still have been early in the night, for she had not yet gone to bed, and had on above her smooth grey hair her cap with its adorable blue ribands in it. At her throat was the brooch made of the same stuff as the shining shillings with which a year or two later she bought the buns and sponge-cakes for tea. He remembered no more than that; he knew nothing of what she had said: the whole of that memory consisted in the fact of the secure comfort and relief which her face brought. It was just a vignette of memory, the earliest of all; there was nothing whatever before it, and nothing for some time after.
Gradually the horizon widened; scenes and situations in which Archie was still a detached observer, as if looking through a telescope, made themselves visible. He remembered gazing through the bars of the high nursery fire-guard at the joyful glow of the fuel. At the corner of the grate (he remembered this with extreme distinctness), there was a black coal, the edge of which was soft and bubbly. A thin streamer of smoke blew out of it, and from time to time this smoke caught light and flared very satisfactorily. But all that, the joyfulness and the satisfaction, was external to him; it was the coals and the streams of burning gas that were in themselves joyful and satisfactory. That must have been in the winter, and it was in the same winter perhaps that he came home with Blessington and two other children—girls, and larger than himself—whom he grew to believe were his sisters, through a wood of fir-trees between the trunks of which shone a round red ball that resembled the coals in the nursery-grate. He knew—perhaps Blessington, perhaps a sister, perhaps his mother had told him—that it was Christmas Eve, and he saw that when Blessington spoke to him she steamed delightfully at the mouth, as if there had been a hot bath just inside her lips. At her suggestion he found he could do it, too, and his sisters also; whereafter they played hot-baths all the way home. But of the Christmas Day that followed he had no recollection whatever.
His observation became a little less detached; he began to form in his mind an explorer's map of the places where these phenomena occurred, to be dimly aware that he was taking some sort of part in them, and was not a mere spectator, and one summer evening he definitely knew that the day-nursery and the night-nursery and the room beyond where his sisters slept were all part of the red-brick house which he and others inhabited, just as, according to Blessington, the rabbit which he had seen pop into its hole in the wood beyond the lawn, had a home within it. He had already had his bath, on a patch of sunlight that lay across the nursery-floor, and escaping, slippery as a trout, from Blessington's towelling hands, had run with a squeal of delight across to the window. Outside was the lawn, which hitherto he had thought of as a thing apart, a picture by itself, and beyond was the wood where the rabbit had a house. On the lawn was his mother, playing croquet with his two sisters, and of a sudden it flashed upon him that the wood and the rabbit, the lawn and the croquet-players, the night-nursery, Blessington, the shine of the sun low in the west, and his own wet self were all in some queer manner part of the same thing, and made up that to which he and Blessington went back when, at the limit of their walk, she said it was time to go home.
"Oh, there's mummy," he cried. "Mummy!" And he danced naked at the window.
Blessington caught him in the towel again.
"Well, I never!" she said. "That's not the way for a young gentleman to behave. There, let me dry you, dear, and put your night-shirt on, and you shall say good-night to your mamma out of the window."
This was duly done, and it struck Archie as a very novel and delightful discovery that he could say good-night to his mother when she was on the croquet-lawn and he up in the night-nursery. It shed a new light on existence generally, and coloured with a new interest the few drowsy moments which intervened between his being put into bed and falling asleep. Blessington still moved quietly about the room, emptying his bath, and putting his clothes tidy, and he just remembered her kissing him when she had finished. He was already too suffused with drowsiness to make any response, and he slid softly out over the tides of sleep.
That night he became acquainted with a new sort of experience, something hitherto quite foreign to him. Once again he woke in the night and found himself surrounded by the vast dark, save where, in a corner of the nursery, there burned the shaded night-light. But now there was no sense of terror; he did not want to call for Blessington, but lay open-eyed and absorbed in the amazing thing that was happening. The night-nursery (where he knew he was), and he with it, were expanding and extending, till they comprised the lawn and the wood beyond the lawn, and all else that he had ever known. His sisters and his mother and father were all there, though he could not see them; Blessington was there, and Graves the butler, and Walter and William, the two footmen. He could not see them, any more than he could see the moon and the sun, which were there also, but they were there as part of an unusual presence that filled the place. He could not see that unusual presence either, but it was tremendously real and filled him not in the least with awe, but with the feeling with which Blessington's face and his mother's face inspired him… And the next thing that he was aware of was the rattle of the blind, and Blessington's voice saying, "Eh, what a time of morning to have slept to. I know a sleepy-head!"
He recounted this remarkable experience to Blessington at breakfast, who was quite sure that it was all a dream; a nice dream, but a dream.
"Wasn't a dream," said Archie firmly.
"And where did Mr. Contradiction go?" asked Blessington.
Archie knew where Mr. Contradiction went, for Mr. Contradiction lived in a very dull corner of the nursery with his face to the wall for five minutes.
"Well, it didn't seem like a dream," he said. "May I get down?"
"Yes, and say your grace."
"Thank God for my good dinner," said Archie, who was not attending.
"Say it again, dear," said Blessington; "and think."
"I meant breakfast," said Archie. "Amen."
The discovery of the connection, made last night, between himself in the night-nursery and his mother on the lawn, which proved that the lawn and the house were part of the same thing, produced further results that day. Instead of memory consisting of different and severed pictures, it began to flow into one coherent whole. He knew, of course, already that at the end of the nursery passage was a wooden wicket-gate, and that outside that was the long gallery that skirted round three sides of the hall, while on the fourth ran a broad staircase each step of which had to be surmounted and descended either by a series of jumps, or, if the feet were tired, by the extension of one foot on to the next stair where it was joined by the other; but he began now to put these isolated facts together, and form them into the conception of a house. When the staircase was negotiated you found yourself in a large oak-floored hall, where you were not allowed to slide on purpose, though both Blessington and his mother had the sense to distinguish between deliberate and unintentional slidings. There were bright rugs spread here and there over the hall, forming islands in a glassy sea. Archie knew it was not made of glass really, but he chose to think that it was, for it had the qualities of a looking-glass in that it reflected his own bare-legged form above it, and the slipperiness of glass as exhibited in the window-panes of the nursery, and he chose also to think that it was to the hall-floor that the hymn alluded which was sung last Sunday morning in a dazzling and populous place to which his mother had taken him. The people who sang loudest were two rows of boys dressed in crinkly white night-shirts, in company with some grown-up men who were attired in the same curious manner. But none of them went to bed, and at a pause in the proceedings Archie had suddenly asked his mother, in a piercing voice, why they didn't go to bed. Evidently that had puzzled her too, for she had no reply to give him except "Hush, darling!" which wasn't an answer at all. Then another man had begun talking all by himself. He had a quantity of hair on his chin which wagged in so delightful a manner when he spoke that Archie watched him entranced for a little, and then, afraid that his mother was missing this lovely sight, said:
"O mummy, isn't that a funny man?"
Upon which Blessington, magically communicated with, appeared by his side and whispered that they were going for a walk, and towed him down the aisle, still rapturously looking back at the funny man. Archie had thought it all very entertaining, but he was told afterwards by his father that he had disgraced himself and should not go to church again for many Sundays to come.
Archie was frightened of his father, and always went warily by the door of the room at the dark corner of the hall where this tremendous person lived. There were other dangers about that corner, for on the floor were two tiger-skins which looked as if the animal in question had, with the exception of its head, been squashed out flat, like as when he and Blessington sometimes put a flower they had gathered on their walks between two sheets of blotting-paper, and piled books on the top, so that it ceased to be a flower, and became the map of a flower. Archie wished the tigers' heads had been pressed in the same way; as it was, they were disconcertingly solid and life-like, with long teeth and snarling mouths and glaring eyes. He had always made Blessington come right up to his father's door with him when he went in to say good-night, so that she should pilot him safely past the tigers on his entry and escort him by them again on his return. But one night his father had come out with him, and, finding Blessington waiting there, had divined, as by some awful black magic, why the nurse was waiting, and had decreed that Archie should in future make his way across the danger zone unattended. But, next evening, the trembling Archie, hurrying away in the dusk, had fallen down on the glassy sea between the awful Scylla and Charybdis, and, convinced that his last hour had come, when these two cruel heads beheld him prostrate on the floor, had cried himself to sleep from terror of that awful ending. But next day his mother, who understood about things in general better than anybody, had caused the tigers to make friends with him, and in token of their amity they had each of them presented him with a whisker-hair. That assured their friendship, and they wished it to be understood that their snarlings and glarings were directed, not at Archie, but at Archie's enemies. This naturally changed their whole aspect, and Archie, after he had wished his father good-night, kissed the hairy heads that had once been so terrifying, and thanked them for successfully keeping his enemies from molesting him.
But though now the presence of the tigers, ceasing to be a terror by night, had become a protection to Archie, their corner of the hall still constituted a danger zone to be gone by swiftly and silently, lest a raised voice or an incautious noise should cause him to be called from within the closed door of his father's room. There were risks in that room; you never quite knew whether you were not going to be blamed for doing something which you had no idea was blame-worthy. One day Archie had found a lovely wax match with a blue head to it on the floor, and had put it in his pocket, where he fingered it delightedly, for he knew it to be the sort which flamed when you rubbed it against your boot or the bricks of the house, as he had seen his father do. But then, when a little later he had come to sit on his father's knee and be shown pictures in a book of natural history, it was detected that his small fingers smelled of phosphorus, and when the reason was discovered, he was told by his father that he had stolen that match. To Archie's mind there was something inexplicably unfair and unjust about this; he knew quite well that the match was not his, but he had no idea that it was stealing if you appropriated something that was dropped on the floor. A thing dropped on the floor was nobody's, and anybody, so he supposed, might take it. It had been quite another affair when he had taken eight lumps of sugar out of the basin on the tea-table in the drawing-room and hidden them in his domino-box. He had been perfectly well aware that he was stealing them, and had no sense of injustice when his mother had promptly and soundly smacked him for it. But he intensely resented being told by his father that he had stolen (even though he was not smacked) when he had not the least idea that a match dropped on the floor was a stealable article at all, and he felt it far more bitter to be unjustly blamed than justly punished.
"But I didn't know it was stealing, daddy," said he.
"But didn't you know it wasn't yours?"
"And didn't you know that to take what isn't yours is stealing?"
Archie couldn't explain, but he was still quite sure he had not been stealing…
His father's room then, at least when that potentate was in it, was a place where extreme caution was necessary, and, however cautious you were (he had not felt guilty of the smallest temerity in picking up that match), you could never be quite sure that Fate, like some great concealed cat, would not pounce upon you from the most unexpected quarter. But, considered in itself, the room had a tremendous attraction for him. There was a delicious smell about it, subtly compounded of the leather backs of books and the aroma of tobacco, which to Archie's dawning perception had something virile and masculine about it. He could understand the manliness of the place, it answered to something that was shared by him, and not shared by his mother or Blessington or his sisters, and belonged to a man. The furniture and the appurtenances of the room conveyed the same message; they were strong and solid, without frillings or frippery, and had a decisive air and a purpose about them which somehow concerned that mysterious difference between boys and girls and between men and women. His mother's sitting-room, it is true, seemed to Archie a fairy-palace of loveliness, with its spindle-legged tables, its lace-edged curtains, its soft, silky cushions, its china, its glittering silver toys on a particular black lacquer table, its nameless feminine fragrance. But this room, with its solid leather chairs, which held small limbs as in a tender male embrace, its gun-case in the corner, its whip-rack, its few solid, sober pictures which hung above the book-shelves, struck a different and more intimate and more intelligible note. Archie felt that he knew what it was all about… it was about a man, to which genus he himself belonged. This particular specimen, his father, might be unjust to him, and severe to him, but in some secret inexplicable manner Archie understood him, though fearing him, better than he understood either his mother or Blessington, both of whom he loved. His two sisters, in the same way, had a quality of enigma about them.
These floating impressions, the untranslatable instincts of early childhood, began to thicken, when Archie was getting on for six years old, into thoughts capable of being solidified into language. He could not have solidified them himself, but if any one capable of presenting them to him in actual words had asked him, "Is it this you mean?" he would have assented. And his solidified thoughts would have taken the following mould:
There was something odd about females, and it was a mystery into which he did not at all want to enquire. They wore skirts, which perhaps concealed some abnormality, which would be fearful to contemplate. They had soft faces and soft bodies; when his mother took him on her knee—she already said that he was getting too big a boy to sit on her knee, which to Archie sounded very grand and delightful—she was soft to his shoulder, and her cheek was soft to his. But when he sat on his father's knee he felt a hard, firm substance behind him, and the contrast was similar to the contrast between his mother's soft cushions and his father's leather-clad chairs. And his father had a hard, bristly cheek on which to receive Archie's good-night kiss. Judged by the standards of pleasure and luxury, it was not nearly as nice as his mother's, but it gave him, however great need there was for caution, a sense of identity with himself. He was of that species… And this conception of abnormality in women was strongly confirmed when, one morning, he went as usual to his mother's bedroom to see her before she went down to breakfast. She had been late in getting up that day, and, not finding her in her bedroom, Archie's attention had been arrested by hearing sounds from her bathroom next door, and very naturally had turned the handle in order to enter. But a voice from inside had said:
"Is that you, darling? Wait just a minute."
"But I want to come in now," said Archie. "I'm coming in."
"Archie, I shall be very angry if you come in before I give you leave," said the voice. Then there were rustlings. "Come in now."
And there was his mother standing by her bath, which smelt deliciously fragrant, in a lovely blue bath-towel dressing-gown.
"Good-morning, darling," said she. "But you must never come into a lady's bathroom unless she gives you leave."
"Why not?" said Archie. "You come to see me in my bath without my saying
She gave that delicious bubble of laughter that reminded Archie of the sound of cool lemonade being poured out of the bottle.
"I shan't when you're as old as me," she said. "I shall always ask your leave. And probably you won't give it me."
"Why not? It's only me," said Archie.
"You'll know when you're older," said she.
Archie rather despised that argument: it seemed to apply to so many situations in life. But he had already formed the very excellent habit of crediting his mother with the gift of common sense, for was it not she who had discovered that the snarl of the tiger-heads was a snarl not at Archie, but at his enemies? But on this occasion it merely confirmed his conviction that women were somehow deformed. They wore skirts instead of breeches, and though, judging by his younger sister, they were normal up to about the level of the knee, it seemed likely that their legs extended no farther, but that they became like peg-tops, swelling out in one round piece till their bodies were reached. What confirmed this impression was that they seemed to run from their knees instead of striding with a swung leg. Blessington always ran like that: her feet twinkled in ridiculously short steps, and after a moment or two she said:
"Eh, I can't run any more. I've got a bone in my leg."
"And haven't I?" asked Archie.
"No, dear: you're just made of gristle and quicksilver," said Blessington, with a sudden lyrical spasm as she looked at the shining face of her most beloved.
"What's quicksilver?" asked Archie. "And why haven't I got a bone in my leg? O-o-oh!" and a sudden thought struck him. "Have women got bones in their legs and not boys? Is that why they can't run properly? Mummy can't run, nor can you; but William can, damn him."
"Master Archie!" said Blessington in her most severe voice.
"What for?" asked Archie.
"You must never say that, Master Archie," said Blessington, who only called him Master Archie on impressive occasions. "You must never say what you said after 'William can.'"
"But daddy said it to William this morning," said Archie.
Blessington still wore the iron mask on her face. It was lucky for her that Archie did not know how puzzled she was as to the correct answer.
"Your papa says what he thinks fit," she said, "and that is right for him. But young gentlemen never say it."
"How old shall I have to be—" began Archie.
"And look at your shoe-lace all untied," said Blessington with extreme promptitude. "Do it up at once, or you'll be treading on it. And then it will be time for you to go in, and you can write your letter to Miss Marjorie before your dinner."
Miss Marjorie was the elder of Archie's two sisters. She was ten years older than he, and at the present time was staying with her grandmother, whom Archie strongly suspected of being either a witch or a man. She was large and rustling, and had a bass voice and a small moustache and a small husband, who was an earl, to whom, when he came to stay with Archie's father, who appeared to be his son, every one paid a great deal of unnecessary attention. Both of them, Archie's father, and Archie's father's father, were lords, and Archie distinctly thought he ought to be a lord too, considering that both his father and his grandfather were. Blessington had hinted that he would be a lord too, some day, if he were good, but when pressed she couldn't say when. In fact, there was a ridiculous reticence about the whole matter, for when he had asked his mother, in the presence of his grandfather, when he was going to be a lord, his grandfather, quite inexplicably, had giggled with laughter, and said:
"I've got one foot in the grave already, Archie, and you want me to have both."
That was a very cryptic remark, and when Archie asked William the footman what grandpapa Tintagel had meant, William had said that he couldn't say, sir. On which Archie, looking hastily round, and feeling sure that Blessington was not present, had repeated "Damn you, William," as daddy said.
Then William, after endeavouring not to show two rows of jolly white teeth, had said:
"You must never say that to me, Master Archie."
In fact, there was clearly a league. Blessington and William, who didn't love each other, as Archie had ascertained by direct questions to each, were at one over the question of him not saying that. Under the stress of independent evidence, Archie decided not to say it any more, without further experiments as to the effect "it" would have on his mother. If William and Blessington were both agreed about it, it had clearly better not be done, any more than it was wise to walk about among the flowers of the big, herbaceous border. The gardener and the gardener's boy and his mother were all of one mind about that, and the gardener's boy had threatened to turn the hose on to him if he caught him at it. The gardener's boy was quite grown up, and so for Archie he had a weight of authority that befitted his years.
It was a lovely, disconnected life. There were all sorts of delightful and highly coloured strands that contributed to it, and others of a more sombre hue, and others again quite secret, which concerned Archie alone, and of which he never spoke to anybody. Of the delightful and highly coloured strands there were many. Waking in the morning, and knowing that there was going to be another day was one of them, and perhaps that was the most delightful of all except when, rarely, it was clouded with some trouble of the evening before, as when Archie had broken a window in his father's study in the laudable attempt to kill a wasp with a fire-shovel, and had been told by Blessington that his father wished to see him the moment he was dressed in the morning. But usually the wakings were ecstatic; and often he used to return to consciousness in those summer months long before Blessington came in to call him. The window was always open—all the windows in the night-nursery were opened as soon as he got into bed—and the blinds were up, and on the ceiling was the most delicious green light, for the early sun shone through the branches of the beeches outside, and painted Archie's ceiling with a pale, milky green which was adorable to contemplate. He would pull up his night-shirt, and with his bare arms clasp his bare knees, and, lying on his back, rather unsteadily anchored, would roll backwards and forwards looking at the green light, and rehearsing all the delightful probabilities of the day. Sometimes his mother had promised him that he should go out fishing on the lake when his lessons were done, and this implied the wonderful experience of seeing Walter or William come out on to the lawn, and pour out of a tin gardening can a mixture of mustard and water. When the footman did that it was certain that in a short time the grass would be covered with worms, which William put in a tin box lined with moss. Then Archie and William, sometimes with a sister, whose presence, Archie thought, was not wholly desirable, since she impeded the free flow of talk between him and William, would go down to the lake, and William, who could do everything, put worms on hooks (they did not seem to mind, for they said no word of protest), and sculled across to the sluice above which was deep water, where the fish fed, and away from the reeds, where the line got entangled, so that it was impossible to know whether you were engaged with a fish or a vegetable. The fishing-rod came out of his father's study—that was another delightful male attribute about the room—and when Archie went in to ask for it, William came too, not in his livery, but in ordinary clothes, and his father said, "Take good care of Master Archie, William. Good sport, Archie." Sometimes again, if he was not busy, Lord Davidstow came out with Archie instead of William. That was somehow an honour, but Archie did not like it so much.
Once there was a great happening. William produced a curious object that looked like the bowl of a spoon with hooks set all round it. He said there were going to be no worms this time, and, instead of drifting about, he rowed up and down, while Archie, with his rod over the stern, saw the spoon flashing through the water. Then a great shadow came over it, and Archie felt the rod bend in his hands. He was so excited that he stepped on to the seat of the boat, in order to see better, and promptly fell overboard.
He was not the least frightened, and rather enjoyed the splash and the sense of soda-water round him. With both hands he held on to the fishing-rod, which seemed an absolutely essential thing to do, and sank down, down in the deep water, seeing it green and yellow above his head. And then instantly he knew he was going to be drowned, and a feeling precisely identical to that which he had experienced one night when he woke, of a universal presence round about him, took complete possession of him. Then, even before he was conscious of the least sense of choking or discomfort, but was still only aware of coolness and depth and greenness, a great dark splaying object came right down upon him from above, and he found himself tucked underneath a human arm, coatless and in shirt-sleeves which he took to be William's. But still Archie did not let go of the fishing-rod, and mistakenly trying to speak, bidding William take care of it, his mouth and apparently his whole interior filled with water, and drowning suddenly seemed to be a disagreeable process. Next moment, however, his head emerged from the water again, and William caught hold of the boat.
"Let go the rod, Master Archie," said he, "and catch hold of the boat."
"But there's a fish on it," spluttered Archie.
"Do as I tell you, sir," said William quite crossly.
Archie had been told that, when he went out in the boat with William, he had to do precisely as William told him. He was not, it is true, in the boat at the moment, but the injunction probably applied. So he let go of the rod, and the moment afterwards found himself violently propelled over the side of the boat, and tumbled all abroad on the floor of it. They were but a dozen yards from land, and William having once got Archie into the boat, grabbed hold of the rod with his spare hand, and swam, shoving the boat in front of him.
"Oh, well done, William. Oh, William, I love you," screamed Archie when, having righted himself, he observed this brilliant manoeuvre. "Is the fish there still?"
William scrambled up the bank, still holding the rod.
"Run indoors at once, Master Archie," he said. "Don't wait a moment."
"But William, is the fish—" began Archie.
"Do as I tell you, sir," said William again. "I'll bring the fish for you, if I get him."
Archie ran with backward glances across the lawn, where he was met by Blessington who had observed the accident out of the window, and, before he could explain half the thrilling things that had happened, was undressed and rubbed down and put between blankets. And then, after a few minutes, in came William, having also changed his clothes, with a great pike, and his father followed and shook hands with William, and his mother did the same, saying things that made William blush and stand first on one foot and then on the other, murmuring: "It was nothing at all, my lady," and Archie asked if he and William might go out again that afternoon, and catch another pike. Then in came his younger sister, Jeannie, who was only two years his senior. She appeared to be on the point of crying, and she flung her arms round Archie's neck in an uncomfortable sort of way, and Archie told her she was messing him. After that, in reaction from those thrilling affairs, he felt suddenly tired, and, being encouraged to go to sleep, nestled down in the blankets and woke up to find that there was his fish stuffed for dinner, and for himself and William an era of unexampled popularity.
Archie did not understand at the time why he had suddenly blossomed into such favouritism, unless it was for having clung tight to his father's fishing-rod but he enjoyed it immensely. It was pleasant, too, not long afterwards, to be given a gold watch by his father, to present to William, with a gold chain provided by his mother. And William permitted him to put the gold watch into one waistcoat pocket, and the end of the gold chain into the other, and his father and mother and Jeannie all shook hands with William again (every one seemed to be spending their time in shaking hands with William). So Archie, since William was his friend more than anybody else's, kissed him, in order to mark the difference between himself and other people with regard to him. He was surprised to find that William had got a soft cheek like his mother's, and supposed that men's faces grew hard as they grew older. He instantly mentioned this surprising fact, and William appeared rather glad to leave the room. But in all Archie's life no event ever occurred which approached the splendour and public magnificence of this whole experience.
Every day the world widened, and, lying looking at the green light on the ceiling in the cool still mornings of that summer which seemed to last for years and years, Archie found himself not only speculating on what fresh joys the day would bring, but joining together in his mind the happenings that at the time seemed disconnected, but which proved to be part of a continuous thread of existence. Just as the nursery passage, and the steep stairs, and his father's room, and the lawn, and the lake passed from being isolated phenomena into pieces of a whole, so things that happened proved to be the experiences of the person who was known to others as Archie Morris, and to Archie as himself. Sometimes he so tingled with vigour when he woke that, contrary to orders, he stepped out of bed and leaned out of the window, to look at the bright dewy world, with one ear alert to hear Blessington's foot along the passage, in order to leap back into bed again, for now he had the night-nursery to himself, and Blessington slept next door. At that hour the lawn would be covered with a shimmering grey mantle, pearl-coloured, and here and there a few diamonds had got in by mistake which shone with just the brilliance of his mother's necklace. Perhaps these were the bed-clothes of the lawn, and when day came, they were covered over by the green bed-spread like that which lay on his own bed. The lake away to the right had different bed-clothes, thicker ones, but of the same colour. No doubt they were thicker because the lake was colder, for on some mornings he could not see through them at all. To the left, out of the window, rose the wood where the rabbits lived; sometimes one of them, an early riser like Archie, would have found a gap in the netting and was out on the lawn nibbling the grass. The gardener did not approve of that, for the lawn, it appeared, belonged to the people who lived in Archie's house, and not to the folk in the wood, and this was a trespass on the part of the rabbits, for which the punishment, rather a severe one, was death by shooting. This had added a new terror to the notice in another wood where he and Blessington sometimes walked, which announced that trespassers would be prosecuted. Blessington was foolhardy enough to disregard that notice altogether, saying that it was his daddy's notice, and didn't apply to them; but for some time Archie never chose that walk for fear that Blessington might be wrong about it, and that they would meet somebody in the wood who would instantly shoot them both for trespassing. But in childish fashion he kept those terrors to himself, sooner than enquire about them, till one day they actually did meet in that wood a man with a gun. Then in a sudden wild terror Archie clung to Blessington, crying out, "Oh, ask him not to shoot us this time!"
"Eh, darling," said Blessington. "Who's going to shoot us? It's only one of your daddy's keepers."
"No, but he will shoot us," screamed Archie. "We're trespassers, and he'll shoot us like the rabbits."
Matters being thereupon explained, and Archie convinced that he and Blessington were not going to be shot for trespassing, he found that he could make up for himself an entrancing story of how Master Rabbit and his nurse (who were good) never trespassed on the lawn, and that the rabbits he saw there corresponded to Grandmamma Tintagel, and so he did not care whether they were shot or not.
These stories which he told himself in the early morning, looking out on to the lawn, or lying curled up on his back in bed, looking at the green ceiling, were not vague, dream-like imaginings, but were endowed with a vividness that made Blessington's entry with his bath and his clothes seem less real than they. It became impossible indeed for him to disentangle reality (as judged by people like his father and the gardener) from imagination. He told himself so strongly that there was Grandmamma Tintagel sitting on the lawn, trespassing and nibbling grass for her breakfast, that her presence there, or her absence when there was no trespassing rabbit, became things as vivid as his subsequent dressing and breakfast. Had he been definitely asked if he believed it was Grandmamma Tintagel, he would have said "No"; but in his imaginative life, so hard for a child to dissociate from his real life, there was no question as to her identity. It happened also that at this time his mother was reading to him the realest of all books, namely, Alice in Wonderland. No imaginative boy of five could possibly doubt the actual existence of the White Rabbit in that convincing history, and Archie would not have been surprised if, one morning, there had proved to be a white rabbit sitting by the fence, who looked at his watch and put on his gloves. Yet he never spoke of this possibility even to Blessington or William; it did not belong to the sphere of things about which it was reasonable to converse to grown-up people, simply because they were stupid about certain matters and would not understand him. The fact that Grandmamma Tintagel sometimes sat on the lawn in the early morning was among the topics which he kept quite completely to himself.
There were other such topics. Sometimes, when he lay in bed, waiting for Blessington to call him, and did not choose to get up and look out of the window, it was because these other secret affairs engaged him. If he lay still, and stared at the green-hued ceiling, curious waves of shadow appeared to pass over it, and it seemed like that sunny floor of water that had closed above his head on the morning when he fell out of the boat. There was he lying in bed deep below some surface of liquid light that cut him off from the outer world, and he wondered if in a moment a splayed starfish of arms and legs which turned out to be William would dive down for him, and bring him up among the common things again. But William never made this impressive entry through the ceiling, and if he stared long enough, Archie only seemed to himself to slip down and down, gently and rapturously, through deep water, and another world, the world of hidden things that dwelt below the surface, came slowly into existence, like as when, on mounting a slope, fresh valleys and hillsides arise and unfurl themselves. Only, in this case, you had to go down somewhere inside yourself to become aware of them. And something, some inner consciousness, recognized and hailed them. It was not that he was getting sleepy, and sinking into the waters of dreams; rather the experience was the result of a more vivid life and awakened perceptions. But he never got further than that, and during the day he was far too busy with the affairs of normal life to trouble about those perceptions that dawned on him on still quiet mornings when he lay a-bed and stared at the ceiling with its flickering green lights and moving shadows.
Archie's birthday was in November, and for a day or two before that tremendous annual event there was always a certain atmosphere of mystery abroad, which he was conscious of at odd minutes. He met Marjorie on the morning of the day before he would be six, walking down the nursery passage with a parcel in her hand, the contents of which she would not divulge. That afternoon, too, his mother drove into the neighbouring town in the motor, and would not take him with her, on the excuse that she had some shopping to do, though it was the commonest thing in the world for her to take him with her when she went shopping. This year he vaguely connected these odd happenings with his birthday, as he did also the fact that a week ago Blessington had brought a total stranger into the nursery, who had very politely asked him to take off his coat. The stranger had then knelt down on the floor in front of him, and had produced a tape, with which he proceeded to measure Archie all over, from his hip to his knee and his knee to his ankle, and round his waist, and round his chest, and all along his arms, making notes of those things in a book. Blessington had told him that Mr. Johnson wanted to see how much he had grown, which was certainly a very gratifying attention, especially since Archie had grown a good deal, and was extremely proud of the fact. Mr. Johnson congratulated him too, and said that he himself hadn't grown as much as that for many a year, and tried to account for his visit on general grounds of interest in Archie. But in spite of that Archie connected this call with his birthday, though he did not arrive at the deduction that it meant clothes.
His mother came up to tea in the nursery on her return from her mysterious drive, and said that she had just caught sight of the fairy Abracadabra as she drove down the High Street; she had not known that Abracadabra was in the neighbourhood. She asked Archie if Abracadabra had called while she was out, and Archie, after a moment's pause, said that he hadn't seen her… but in that pause something of the glory faded out of the bright trailing clouds. When he was asked that directly he did not feel sure whether he believed in Abracadabra in the same way in which he believed in Blessington or Jeannie. So short a time ago—last summer only—Alice in Wonderland and the identity of Grandmamma Tintagel had been so much realler than the paltry happenings that took place in the light of common day. Now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, at the mere question as to whether he had seen Abracadabra they all began to fade; indeed, it was more than fading: it was as if they passed out of sight behind a corner.
Archie had been told that he must never, if he could help it, hurt people's feelings. The particular occasion when that had been brought home to him was when his sister Jeannie had to wear a rather delightful sort of band round her front teeth, which showed a tendency to grow crooked. She was shy about it and hoped nobody saw it, and when Archie called the attention of the public to it, she turned very red. He had not had the least intention of embarrassing her, for he thought the band rather nice himself, and would have liked to have had one had his teeth been sufficiently advanced for such a decoration. But on this occasion he saw instantly and clearly that he must not hurt his mother's feelings by expressing scepticism about Abracadabra. Perhaps his mother still believed in her herself (though there were difficulties about supposing that, seeing that if Abracadabra was not Abracadabra she was certainly his mother); but, in any case, she thought Archie believed in Abracadabra, which made quite sufficient reason for his appearing to do so. If Abracadabra was an invention designed to awe, delight, and mystify him, the most elementary obligation of not embarrassing other people enjoined on him that he must be awed, delighted, and mystified. Perhaps by next year something would have happened to Abracadabra, for nowadays she only made her appearance on his birthday, whereas he could remember when she paid Jeannie also a birthday visit. But this year she had not come on Jeannie's birthday, and the various members of the family had given her birthday presents themselves, which did not happen when Abracadabra came, for she was the chief dispenser of offerings.
So Archie replied that Abracadabra had not been during his mother's absence, and, in order to spare his mother the mortification of knowing that he had doubts about that benevolent fairy, laid himself out to ask intelligent questions.
"Why didn't you speak to her, mummy?" he said, "when you saw her in the
"Because she was in a hurry; she went by like a flash of lightning, in her pearl chariot."
"Was there any thunder?" asked he.
"Yes, just one clap; but that might have been the wheels of the chariot.
What do you think she'll bring you?"
Archie was holding his mother's hand, and slipping her rings up and down her fingers. As he held it, he suddenly became aware what one of these presents would be.
"A clock-work train," he said quickly.
He knew more than that about the clock-work train. He felt perfectly certain that it was in his mother's bedroom at this moment, reposing in the big cupboard where she kept her dresses.
"Do you want a clock-work train?" she asked.
"Yes, mummy, frightfully," said he, feeling that he was playing a part, for he knew his mother knew that he wanted a clock-work train.
"Oh, thousands of things. Particularly a pen that writes without your dipping it in the ink."
"Well, if I were you I should write down all the things you want, and leave the paper lying on your counterpane when you go to sleep."
"What'll that do?" asked Archie.
"It's the fairy-post. Instead of putting letters into boxes to be posted when you want them to reach the fairies, you have always to put them on your bed. Mind you address it to Her Fairy Majesty the Empress Abracadabra. Then, when the fairies come round to collect the post, they will find it there, and take it to Abracadabra. And perhaps if she comes to-morrow—let me see, it must be a year since she was here—she will bring a few things for your birthday. I can't tell; but I think that is the best chance of getting them."
Certainly this seemed a very pleasant sort of plan; Archie had never heard of it before, and the extremely matter-of-fact tone in which his mother spoke lit again a dawning hope in his mind that perhaps it was all true. Why shouldn't be a fairy Abracadabra, and a fairy-post, just as there had been, and now was no longer, a glassy sea between the rugs in the hall, and snarling tigers to keep off his enemies? If you believed a thing enough, it became real, with a few trifling exceptions—as, for instance, when, on one of the days last summer, a day crammed full of the most delightful events, Archie had found himself firmly believing that that particular day was never coming to an end. True, it had come to an end, but that perhaps was because he hadn't believed strongly enough… There was a lovely story which his mother had read him about a man called Joshua, who wanted a day to remain until he had killed all his enemies, and sure enough the sun stood still until he had accomplished that emphatic task. He never doubted that, because it came out of the Bible, and in the spirit of Joshua he set himself now to believe in Abracadabra and the fairy-post. And, with that in his mind, he kept his eyes firmly away from the cupboard where his mother kept her dresses that evening, when her maid opened it, lest he should see there the parcel which he felt secretly convinced was there, and contained the clock-work train which his mother had bought, and which Abracadabra would to-morrow assuredly bring out of the basket of pure gold with which she habitually travelled.
Archie put the letter for the fairy-post on his bed, and determined to keep awake so that he should see the fairy postman come for it. It was a very cold night, and a big fire burned in his grate, so that, though the windows as usual were all open, there was a clear, brisk warmth about the room and a frosty and soapy smell, for his bright brown hair had been washed that night—this was a special evening bath-night, for by now baths had been promoted to the morning—and stuck up all over his head in a novel and independent manner. Blessington had dried it by the fire for him with hot towels, and a very extraordinary thing had happened, for when she brushed it afterwards it gave forth little cracklings, which she told him was electricity which was the thing that made the lamps burn. She had allowed him to take a brush to bed with him, and make more cracklings for five minutes until she returned to put his light out, and Archie made a wonderful story to himself as he looked at the fire, that he would get an electric lamp and paste it to his head, so that he should be able to read by the light of his hair. All at once this seemed so feasible, so easy of belief that he pictured to himself everybody walking about the house in the evening lit by themselves… And then William came round the corner (he did not know what corner), carrying an electric pike for a birthday present to himself, and when Blessington stole in five minutes afterwards, Archie's brush had slipped from his fingers and his breath came evenly between his parted lips. There was a gap in his front teeth because a tooth had come out only to-day, embedded in a piece of toffy he was eating, which had made Archie squeal with laughter, for here was a new substance called tooth-toffee… And Blessington softly lifted his arm and laid it under the bedclothes without awaking him, and looked at him a moment with her old face beaming with love, and put down on his chair out of sight at the bottom of his bed the new sailor-suit, and took away the note to her Fairy Majesty the Empress Abracadabra.
* * * * *
Archie woke next morning and instantly remembered that he had attained the magnificent age of six. Six had long seemed to him one of the most delightful ages to be. Eighteen was another, mainly because William was eighteen, but six was the best of all, for at eighteen you must inevitably feel that you have lived your life, and that there is nothing much left to live for; for the rest would be but a slow descent into the vale of years. But to-day he was six, and it was his birthday, and… and there was no sign of the letter he had written to Abracadabra on his counterpane. But it might have slipped on to the floor, and not have been taken away by fairies after all. Or it might have slipped over the bottom of the bed; and Archie got up to see. No: there was no note there, but on the chair at the foot of his bed was a suit of sailor-clothes…
Archie gave a gasp: certainly their presence there constituted a possibility that they were for him; but he hardly dared let himself contemplate so dazzling a prospect, for fear it should be whisked out of sight. Yet who could they be for, if not for him? They couldn't be Blessington's, for she was a female, and wore mystery-cloaking skirts. Sailor-suits were boys' clothes: Harry Travers, the son of a neighbouring squire, aged eight, had a sailor-suit—it was the thing that Archie most envied about that young man. Harry had taken the coat and trousers off one day in the summer when the two boys were playing in the copse by the lower end of the lake, and had let Archie put them on for three minutes. That had been a thrilling adventure; it implied undressing out of doors, which was a very unusual thing to do, and he loved the feeling of the rough serge down his bare calves. He had, of course, offered Harry the privilege of putting on his knickerbockers and jacket, if he could get into them without splitting them, but Harry, from that Pisgah-summit of eight years, had no desire to go back to the childish things of the land of bondage, but had danced about bare-legged while Archie enjoyed his three minutes in these voluminous and grown-up lendings. And now perhaps for him, too, not for three minutes only, but for every day… and he took a leap back into bed again as Blessington's tread sounded on the boards outside.
Archie pretended to be asleep, for he wanted to be awakened by Blessington and hear his birthday greetings. He loved the return of consciousness in the morning—when he had not already been awake, and speculating about Grandmamma Tintagel on the lawn—to find Blessington, with her hand on his shoulder, gently stirring him, and her face close to his, whispering to him, "Eh, it's time to get up." So this morning, not for the first time, he simulated sleep in order to recapture that lovely sense of being awakened by love. (You must understand that he did not put it to himself like that, for Archie, just at the age of six, was not a mature and self-conscious prig, but he wanted to know what Blessington's greeting to him would be, when she thought she woke him up on the morning of his sixth birthday.)
From the narrow chink of his eyelids not quite closed, he could see some of her movements. She took the exciting suit of sailor-clothes from the bottom of his bed, and laid it on the chair where she always put his clothes with a flannel shirt of a quite unusual shape, and his socks on top. Already Archie had heart-burnings at the knowledge of his knowledge of the sailor-suit. Blessington meant it to be a surprise to him, and a surprise he determined it should be. In the interval there was another surprise: how would Blessington wake him? She would be sure to rise to the immense importance of the occasion. She moved quietly about; she shut the windows, and brought in his bath. And then she came close up to his bed. He felt her hand stealing underneath the bedclothes to his shoulder and she shook it gently—"Eh, Master Six," she said.
Oh, she had done exactly the right thing! She had divined Archie, as he had divined himself, knowing himself. That was just the only thing to think about this morning. He ceased to imagine: Blessington, out of her simplicity of love, had given the real birthday greeting.
He rolled a little sideways, and there was her face close to his, and her hand still underneath his bed-clothes. He put up both of his hands and caught it.
"Many happy returns," said Blessington. "Wake up, my darling: it's your birthday. Happy returns," she repeated.
Archie released her hand and flung his arm round her neck.
"Oh, Blessington, isn't it fun?" he said. "What did you do when you were six?"
"I got up directly," said Blessington, kissing him, "and had my bath and put my clothes on. Now, will you do the same, for I'm going downstairs for ten minutes, and then I shall be back."
"All right," said Archie.
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