Across the Stream - E.F. Benson - ebook

Across the Stream ebook

E.F. Benson

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A mixture of romance and paranormal. The story of a child who belongs to the upper class. The main character, Archie, saw something strange in women. They wore skirts that might have hidden some kind of abnormality that would be scary to contemplate. Men were a true example of courage.

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Liczba stron: 491

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Contents

INTRODUCTION

BOOK I

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

BOOK II

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

BOOK III

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

INTRODUCTION

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.

E. F. BENSON

BOOK I

CHAPTER I

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?”

“Yes.”

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