The Adventures of Harry Revel
Stark naked though I was, she did not flinch as I came; only her eyes seemed to widen upon me in wonder. And for all my desperate hurry I had time to see, first, that they were graver than other girls' eyes, and next that they were exceedingly beautiful.
In those days I had small learning (I have little enough, even now), or I might have fancied her some goddess awaiting me between the night and the dawn. She stood, tall and erect, in a loose white wrapper, the collar of which had fallen open and revealed the bodice-folds of her nightgown—a cloud at the base of her firm throat. Her feet were thrust into loose slippers: and her hair hung low on her neck in dark masses as she had knotted them for the night.
"Where do you come from, boy?" she asked; but an instant later she put that question aside as an idle one. "Someone has been ill-treating you! Come indoors!"
She held out a hand and, as I clung to it, led me to the door; but turned with her other hand on the latch. "Is anyone following?"
I shook my head. She was attempting now, but gently, to draw back the hand to which I clung; and, in resisting, my fingers met and pulled against a ring—a single ring of plain gold.
Seeing that I had observed it, she made no further effort, but let her hand lie, her eyes at the same moment meeting mine and searching them gravely and curiously.
"Come upstairs," she said; "but tread softly. My father is a light sleeper."
She took me to a room in the corner of which stood a white bed with the sheets neatly turned down, prepared and ready for a guest. The room was filled with the scent of flowers—fragrant scent of roses and clean aromatic scent of carnations. There were fainter scents, too, of jasmine and lavender; the first wafted in from a great bush beyond the open lattice, the second (as I afterwards discovered) exhaled by the white linen of the bed. But flowers were everywhere, in bowls and jars and glasses; and as though other receptacles for them had failed, one long spray of small roses climbed the dressing-table from a brown pitcher at its foot.
She motioned me to a chair beside the bed, and, almost before I knew what was intended, she had fetched a basin of water and was kneeling to wash my feet.
"No—please!" I protested.
"But I love children," she whispered; "and you are but a child."
So I sat in a kind of dream while she washed away the dust and blood, changing the water twice, and afterwards dried each foot in a towel, pressing firmly but never once hurting me.
When this was done, she rose and stood musing, contemplating me seriously and yet with a touch of mirth in her eyes.
"You are such a little one!" she said. "Father's would never fit." And having poured out fresh water and bidden me wash my body, she stole out.
She returned with a white garment in her hand and real mirth now in her eyes. My toilet done, she slipped the garment over me. It fell to my feet in long folds, yet so lightly that I scarcely felt I was clothed: and she clapped her hands in dumb-show. It was one of her own night-gowns.
I glanced uneasily towards the bed. Its daintiness frightened me, used as I was to the housekeeping—coarse if clean—of Mrs. Trapp.
"Your prayers first," she whispered. "Don't you know any?" She eyed me anxiously again. "But you are a good boy? Surely you are a good boy? Don't boys say their prayers? They ought to."
Since passing out of Miss Plinlimmon's tutelage, I had sadly neglected the habit: but I knelt down obediently and in silence.
She stepped close behind me. "But you're not speaking," she murmured. "Father always says his aloud, and so do I. You mustn't pretend, if you don't really know any. I can teach you."
She knelt down beside me, and began to say the Lord's Prayer softly. I repeated it after her, sentence by sentence: and this was really shamming, for of course I knew it perfectly. At the time I felt only that she—this beautiful creature beside me—was in a strange state of exaltation which I could not in the least understand. I know now something of the springs I had touched and loosened within her—I, a naked waif coming to her out of the night and catching her hand for protection. It was not I she taught, nor over me that she yearned. She was reaching through me to a child unknown, using me to press against a strange love tearing at the roots of her body, and to break the pain of it—the roots of her body, I say; for he who can separate a woman's soul from her body is a wiser man than I.
She rose from her knees; threw back the sheets and tucked them about me as I snuggled down.
"What is your name?"
"Harry Revel. Are you Miss Isabel Brooks?"
"I am Isabel."
"Why were you crying, out in the road?"
"Was I crying?"
"Well, not crying exactly: but you looked as if you wanted to."
She smiled. "We both have our secrets it seems; and you shall tell me yours to-morrow. Will yours let you sleep?"
"I think so, Miss Isabel. I am so tired—and so clean—and this bed is so soft—" I stretched out my arms luxuriously, and almost before I knew it she was bending to kiss me, and they were about her neck. Her hair fell over me in a shower and in the shade of it she laughed happily, kissing me by the ear and whispering, "I have my happy secret, too!"
She straightened herself up, tossed back the dark locks with curved sweep of arm and wrist, and moved to the door.
"Good night, Harry Revel!"
A bird was cheeping in the jasmine bush when I dropped asleep, and when I awoke he was cheeping there still. Of my dreams I only remember that they ended in a vague sense of discomfort, somehow arising from a vision of Mr. Rogers in the act of throwing bread at the swans, and of the hen bird's flurry as she paddled away. But the sound which I took for the splashing of water came in fact from the rings of the window curtain, which Miss Isabel was drawing to shut out the high morning sun.
She heard me stir and faced about, with her hand yet on the curtain. "Awake?" she cried, and laughed. "You shall have a basin of bread-and-milk presently: and after that you may get up and put on these." She held out a suit of clothes which lay across her arm. "I have borrowed them from Miss Belcher, who distributes all sorts of garments at Christmas among the youngsters hereabouts, and has rummaged this out of her stock. And after that my father will be glad to make your acquaintance. We shall find him in the garden. Now I must go and see to preparing dinner: for it is past noon, though you may not know it."
Behold me, half an hour later, clad in a blue jacket very tight at the elbows and corduroy breeches very tight at the knees and warm for the time of year, as I descended with Isabel into the walled garden at the back of the cottage. Its whole area cannot have been an acre, and even so the half of it was taken up by a plot of turf, smooth as a bowling green: but beyond this stretched a miniature orchard, and along the walls ran two deep borders crowded with midsummer flowers— tall white lilies and Canterbury bells; stocks, sweet williams, mignonette, candytuft and larkspurs; bushes of lemon verbena, myrtle, and the white everlasting pea. Near the house all was kept in nicest order, with trim ranks of standard roses marching level with the turfed verges, and tall carnations staked and bending towards them across the alley: but around the orchard all grew riotous. The orchard ended in a maze of currant bushes, through which the path seemed to wander after the sound of running water till it emerged upon another clearing of turf, with a tall filbert tree, and a summer-house beneath it, and a row of beehives set beside a stream. The stream, I afterwards learned, came down from Miss Belcher's park, and was the real boundary of the garden: but Miss Belcher had allowed the Major to build a wall for privacy, on the far side of it, yet not so high as to shut off the sun from his bee-skeps; and had granted him a private entrance through it to the park—a narrow wooden door approached by a miniature bridge across the stream.
"Papa!" called Isabel.
I heard a movement in the summer-house, and her father appeared in the doorway. He was old, but held himself so erect that his head almost touched the lintel of the summer-house door, the posts of which he gripped and so stood framed—a giant of close upon six and a half feet in stature. He wore a brown holland suit, with grey stockings and square-toed shoes; and at first I mistook him for a Quaker. His snow-white hair was gathered back from his temples, giving salience to a face of ineffable simplicity and goodness—the face of a man at peace with God and all the world, yet touched with the scars of bygone passions.
"Papa, this is Harry Revel."
He bowed with ceremony, a little wide of me. I saw then that his eyes were sightless.
"I am happy to make your acquaintance, young sir. My daughter informs me that you are in trouble."
"He has promised to tell me all about it," Isabel put in. "We need not bother him with questions just now."
"Assuredly not," he agreed. "Well, if you will, my lad, tell it to Isabel. What is your age? Barely fourteen? Troubles at that age are not often incurable. Only whatever you do—and you will pardon an old man for suggesting it—tell the whole truth. When a man, though he be much older than you and his case more serious than yours can possibly be—when a man once brings himself to make a clean breast of it, the odds are on his salvation. Take my word for that, and a wiser man's—By the way, do you understand Latin?"
"I am sorry to hear it. But perhaps you play the drum?"
"I—I have never tried, sir."
"Dear, dear, this is unfortunate: but at least you can serve me by leading me round the garden and telling me where the several flowers grow, and how they come on. That will be something."
"I will try, sir: but indeed I can hardly tell one flower from another."
At this his face fell again. "Do you, by chance, know a bee when you see one?" "A bee? Oh yes, sir."
"Come, we have touched bottom at length! Do you understand bees? Can you handle them?"
Here Isabel, seeing my chapfallen face, interposed.
"And if he does not, papa, you will have the pleasure of teaching him."
"Very true, my dear. You must excuse me"—here Major Brooks turned as if seeing me with his sightless eyes. "But understand that I like you far better for owning up. There are men—there is a clergyman in our neighbourhood for one—capable of pretending a knowledge of Latin which they don't possess."
"Doesn't Mr. Whitmore know Latin?" I asked.
"Hey? Who told you I was speaking of Whitmore?"
I glanced at Isabel, for her eyes drew me. They were fixed on me almost in terror.
"I have heard him talk it, sir."
"Excuse me: you may have heard him pretending."
"But, papa—" Isabel put forth a hand as if in protest, and I noted that it trembled and that the ring was missing which she had worn overnight. "You never told me that he—that Mr. Whitmore—"
"Was an impostor? My dear, had you any occasion to seek my opinion of him, or had I any occasion to give it? None, I think: and but for Master Revel's incomprehensible guess you had not discovered it now. I have been betrayed into gossip."
He turned abruptly and, feeling with his hand over the surface of the summer-house table, picked up a small volume lying there. It struck me that his temper for the moment was not under perfect control.
Isabel cast at me a look which I could not interpret, and went slowly back to the house.
"The meaning of my catechism just now," said her father, addressing me after listening for awhile to her retreating footsteps, "may be the plainer when I tell you that I am translating the works of the Roman poet Virgil, line for line, into English verse, and have just reached the beginning of the Fourth Georgic. He is, I may tell you, a poet, and the most marvellous that ever lived; so marvellous, that the middle ages mistook him for a magician. That any age is likely to mistake me—his translator—for a conjuror I think improbable. Nevertheless I do my best. And while translating I hold this book in my hand, not that I can see to read a line of it, but because the mere touch of it, my companion on many campaigns, seems to unloose my memory. Except in handling this small volume, I have none of the delicate gift of touch with which blind men are usually credited. But this is page 106, is it not?" He held out the open book towards me, and added, with sudden apprehension, "You can read, I trust?"
I assured him that I could.
"And write? Good again! Come in—you will find pen, ink, and paper on the side-drum in the corner. Bring them over to the table and seat yourself. Ready? Now begin, and let me know when you cannot spell a word."
I seated myself, silently wondering what might be the use of the side-drum in the corner.
"Let me see—let me see—" He thumbed the book for a while, murmuring words which I could not catch; then thrust it behind his back with a finger between its pages, straightened himself up, and declaimed:
"Next of aerial honey, gift divine,
He paused and instructed me how to spell "aerial" and "Maecenas." The orthography of these having been settled, I asked his advice upon "benign," which, as written down by me (I forget how) did not seem convincing.
"You are indisputably an honest boy," said he; "but I have yet to acquire that degree of patience which, by all accounts, consorts with my affliction. Continue, pray:
"Prepare the pomp of trifles to behold:
—"With a capital B, if you please. The poet says 'bees': but the singular, especially if written with a capital, adds in my opinion that mock-heroic touch which, as the translator must frequently miss it for all his pains, he had better insert where he can. By the way, how have you spelt 'Phoebus'?"
"F.e.b.u.s," I answered.
"I feared so," he sighed. "And 'site'?"
"S.i.g.h.t." I felt pretty sure about this. He smote his forehead.
"That is how Miss Plinlimmon taught me," I urged almost defiantly.
"I beg your pardon—'Plinlimmon,' did you say? An unusual name. Do you indeed know a Miss Plinlimmon?"
"It is the name of my dearest friend, sir."
"Most singular! You cannot tell me, I dare say, if she happens to be related to my old friend Arthur Plinlimmon?"
"She is his sister."
"This is most interesting. I remember her, then, as a girl. You must know that Arthur Plinlimmon and I were comrades in the old Fourth Regiment, and dear friends—are dear friends yet, I trust, although time and circumstances have separated us. His sister used to keep house for him before his marriage. A most estimable person! And pray where did you make her acquaintance?"
"In the hospital, sir."
"The hospital? Not an eleemosynary institution for the diseased, I hope?"
I did not know what this meant. "It's a place for foundlings, sir," I answered.
"But—excuse me—Miss Plinlimmon—Agatha? Arabella? I forget for the moment her Christian name—"
"To be sure; Amelia. Well, she could not be a foundling, nor—as I remember her—did she in the least resemble one."
"Oh no, sir: she is the matron there."
"I see. And where is this hospital?"
"At Plymouth Dock."
"At Plymouth Dock. A Mr. Scougall keeps it—a sort of clergyman."
"This is most strange. My friend Arthur's son, young Archibald Plinlimmon, is quartered with his regiment there, and often pays us a visit, poor lad."
"His circumstances are not prosperous. Family troubles—money losses, you understand: and then his father made an imprudent marriage. Not that anything can be said against the Leicesters— there are few better families. But the lady, I imagine, did not take kindly to poverty: never learnt to cut her coat according to the cloth. Her uncle might have helped her—Sir Charles, that is—the head of the family—a childless man with plenty of money. For some reason, however, he had opposed her match with Arthur. A sad story! And now, when their lad is grown and the time come for him to be a soldier, he must start in the ranks. But why in the world, if she lives at Plymouth Dock, has Archibald never mentioned his aunt to us?"
This was more than I could tell him. And you may be sure that the name Leicester made me want to ask questions, not to answer them. But just now Isabel came across the lawn, bearing a tray with a plateful of biscuits, a decanter of claret, and a glass.
"My dear," asked her father, "has our friend Archibald ever spoken to you of an aunt of his—a Miss Plinlimmon—residing at Plymouth Dock?"
"No, papa." She turned on me, again with that fear and appeal in her eyes, as if in some way I was persecuting her; and the decanter shook and tinkled on the rim of the glass as she poured out the claret.
The old man lifted the wine and held it between his sightless eyes and the sunshine.
"A sad story," he mused: "but, after all, the lad is young and the world young for him! Rejoice in your youth, Mr. Revel, and honour your Creator in the days of it. For me, I enjoyed it by God's grace, and it has not forsaken me: no, not when darkness overtook and shut me out of the profession I loved. I cannot see the colour of this wine, nor the face of this my daughter, nor my garden, yonder, full of flowers."
"Seasons return, but not to me returns
"Yet memory returns and consoles my blindness. The colour of the wine is there, the flowers are about me, and Isabel—I am told— resembles her mother. Yes, and away on the edge of Spain, the army I served is planting fresh laurels—my old regiment too, the King's Own, though James Brooks is by this time scarcely a name to it. Here I sit, hale in wind and limb, and old age creeps on me kindly, telling me that no man is necessary. And yet, if God should come and lay a command on me—some task that a blind man might undertake—I am at God's service. I sit with my loins girt and my soul, I hope, shriven. That is my sermon to you, young sir: a clean breast and no baggage. I bid you welcome to Minden Cottage!" He drank to me.
"Is it named from the battle of Minden, sir?" I asked.
"It is, my lad."
"Were you there?"
He laughed. "My father won his captaincy there, in a regiment that mistook orders, charged three lines of cavalry, and broke them one after another. It also broke a sound maxim of war by charging between flanking batteries. The British Army has made half its reputation by mistaking orders—you will understand why, if ever you have the honour to belong to it. Isabel, get me my drum!"
She fetched it from its corner, with the drumsticks; hitched the sling over her beautiful neck; tightened the straps carefully; and began to play a soft tattoo.
The old man leaned back in his chair; felt in his pocket; and having found a silk bandanna handkerchief, unfolded it deliberately, cast it over his head and composed himself to slumber.
The tattoo ran on, peaceful as a brook. Isabel's arms hung lax and motionless: only her hands stirred, from the wrists, and so slightly, or else so rapidly without effort, that they too scarcely seemed to move. Her eyes were averted.
My ear could not separate the short taps. They ran on and on in a murmur as of bees or of leaves rustling together in a wood; grew imperceptibly gentler; and almost imperceptibly ceased. Isabel glanced at her father, and set the drum back in its corner. We stole out of the summer-house together, and across to the orchard.
But under the shade of the apple-boughs she turned and faced me.
"Boy, what do you know?"