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HOME > Short Stories > Ten Degrees Backward > CHAPTER I I, REGINALD KINGSNORTH
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"Reggie, do you remember Wildacre?"

It was with this apparently simple question that Arthur Blathwayte rang up the curtain on the drama of my life.

That the performance was late in beginning I cannot but admit. I was fully forty-two; an age at which the drama of most men\'s lives are over—or, at any rate, well on in the third act. But in my uneventful existence there had been no drama at all; not even an ineffective love-affair that could be dignified by the name of a "curtain-raiser."

Of course I had perceived that some women were better looking than others, and more attractive and easier to get on with. But I had only perceived this in a scientific, impersonal kind of way: the perception had in nowise penetrated my inner consciousness or influenced my existence. I was the type of person who is described by the populace as "not a marrying sort," and consequently I had reached the age of forty-two without either marrying or wishing to marry.

I admit that I had not been thrown into circumstances conducive to the cultivation of the tender passion; my sister Annabel had seen to that; but no sister—be she even as powerful as Annabel herself—can prevent a man from falling in love if he be so minded, nor from seeking out for himself a woman to fall in love with if none are thrown in his way. But I had not been so minded; therefore Annabel\'s precautions had triumphed.

Annabel was one of that by no means inconsiderable number of women who constantly say they desire and think they desire one thing, while they are actually wishing and working for the exact opposite. For instance, she was always remarking how much she wished that I would marry—and what a mistake it was for a man like myself to remain single—and what a pity it was for the baronetcy to die out. And she said this in all sincerity: there was never any conscious humbug about Annabel. Yet if by any chance a marriageable maiden came my way, Annabel hustled her off as she hustled off the peacocks when they came into the flower-garden. My marriage was in theory one of Annabel\'s fondest hopes: in practice a catastrophe to be averted at all costs.

My sister was five years my senior, and had mothered me ever since my mother\'s death when I was a boy. There were only the two of us, and surely no man ever had a better sister than I had. In my childhood she stood between me and danger; in my youth between me and discipline; and in my manhood between me and discomfort. As far as in her lay she had persistently shielded me from all life\'s disagreeables; and a great deal of shielding power lay in Annabel. Of course she ought to have been the son and I the daughter: my mother said it when we were children, and my father never tired of saying it when we were grown up, and I myself fully realised the force of the remark. But I didn\'t see that I could do anything, or that it was in any way my fault, though my father always spoke as if he thought it were: as if in some occult way Annabel\'s unselfishness and my carelessness were responsible for this mistake in sex: and as if she had deliberately stood on one side in order that the honour of manhood should fall upon me.

I consider that my father was in many ways a really great man.

Of comparatively humble origin, he raised himself by his own efforts into a position of commercial importance—amassed a considerable fortune—threw himself heart and soul into political life, serving his party and his country with both zeal and efficiency—and died at last, full of days and honours, beloved and admired by his friends, and revered by the country at large.

And I cannot help seeing that—through no fault of my own—a disappointment I, his only son, must have been to him. I say advisedly, "through no fault of my own," though I have faults enough, Heaven knows! The great tragedy of my life came through my own folly, as I now at last realise: but I cannot see that the disappointment I caused my father was my own doing, though the far greater disappointment I caused to one dearer than my father most undoubtedly was. But of that later.

I was exactly the sort of son that my father ought not to have had: in modern parlance he had no use for me. His son should have resembled himself, and should have been able to go on where he left off. As for me, I was of no good at the business, and of still less in politics: I could neither turn his thousands into tens of thousands, nor his baronetcy into a peerage; for I was endowed with a fatal capacity for sitting still. If that above-mentioned mistake of Nature had not been made, and Annabel had been the boy, imagination fails to depict the heights to which she might not have risen with her father\'s wealth and position for a leaping-board: for, like her father, Annabel was dowered with the gift of Success, whilst I had the gift of Failure.

It is strange how some people, of whom I, alas! am one, possess the capacity to fail in whatsoever they undertake. I do not think it is altogether a fault, as we cannot help it: it seems rather an inherent quality, such as height or size or complexion. Even in childhood Annabel\'s things always turned out well, and mine turned out badly. Her garden blossomed like the rose, while mine was more or less a desert place, though I worked in it quite as hard as she: her white mice were ornaments to society, while mine grew into rats and had to be destroyed; her birthdays were invariably fine, while mine, equally invariably, turned to rain.

When I was young this quality of failure terribly distressed and depressed me; but age—or rather middle age—brings, in exchange for the many things it takes away, the gift of philosophy; and by the time I was forty I accepted the fact that I was a failure with much the same resignation that I accepted the facts that I was short-sighted and too narrow in the shoulders for my height. True, I was now and again haunted by the feeling that I had lived in a backwater, and had never tasted the living waters, nor felt the fierce swirl of the river of life as it rushed by on its headlong course, and that I was getting too old now ever to taste and to feel these things; but this regret was soon smothered by the beauty of my backwater, and my contentment in the lot which had been ordained for me.

Now that I am older I can see that though this quality of Failure is very trying to those who are so unfortunate as to possess it, it is also very irritating to all the successful people round about. And this fills me with wonder and gratitude when I remember the patience that my father and Annabel always showed towards me, who was so differently constituted from themselves. In spite of his disappointment in me, my father always showed me the greatest kindness and affection, and it is a comfort to me to remember that though I was not a son of whom he could be proud, I was never one of whom he could feel ashamed. I could not do the things that he would have had me do: but I studiously left undone anything of which I knew he would have disapproved. That seemed the only reparation I could make for having been the boy and allowed Annabel to be the girl.

My father did not marry until late in life; and my mother, though considerably his junior, was by no means young at the time of her marriage. This, perhaps, accounts for the fact that Annabel and I seem always to have been middle-aged. Our home was a happy one, but there was no element of youth in it. We were surrounded by every comfort and luxury, but enjoyed less actual pleasure than did most young people of our age and generation. My mother was a woman of good family, and as poor as she was proud, and I always think she must have had her romance with some one of her own age and rank before ever she met her middle-aged husband, but that the quality of failure, which she handed on to me, doomed that romance to disappointment.

It was after he had received his baronetcy that my father bought the Restham estate and married Lady Jane Winterford; so Restham Manor has always been my home—surely one of the loveliest and dearest homes that man ever had.

I was considered a delicate boy, and so was educated (mistakenly, as I now think) by tutors at home; thus I missed the inestimable advantage of public-school life, a loss which can never be made up in after years. It is to this loss, perhaps, that I owe the shyness and sensitiveness which I have never been able to outgrow; and there is no doubt that my home education fostered the feminine side of my character—a side already too much developed.

I went to Magdalen College, Oxford, and took a third in Mods. and Greats; and then—to please my father—was called to the Bar, but never to a brief. And before I had waited long for the brief that never came, my father died, and I inherited his title and estates, and I then settled down to the life of a country squire—to my mind the most delightful lot in the world for an unambitious man like myself—with Annabel to keep house for me, as she had done for my father.

It was not long after this that the old rector of Restham died, and I presented to the living my college friend, Arthur Blathwayte. Since then he had well and wisely attended to the spiritual needs of the parish, under the ?gis of Annabel, who had from her childhood ruled over the whole village of Restham.

Annabel was a most regular church-goer: our Sunday\'s dinner was always fixed at an hour which gave her time to attend the evening service and change into a black evening dress. Annabel would have died at the stake rather than not change her dress for dinner; but she always wore black on Sunday evenings, as a sort of concession to the day. She went to church for three reasons: to worship God, to save her own soul, and to see that Arthur Blathwayte didn\'t do anything ritualistic.

Every spring Annabel stood between me and the East wind by insisting on our going abroad together for February and March. There was not the slightest reason for any coolness, so to speak, between the East wind and me: I was as capable of meeting it in the teeth as is any normal Englishman; but my sister condemned it as one of the disagreeable things of life, and therefore felt herself in honour bound to stand between me and it. But she also felt herself bound to return before the end of Lent, in case—without her restraining presence—Blathwayte should be led into any ritualism on Easter Day.

And it was on the day of our return home from one of these East-wind-eluding excursions, when Arthur and I were smoking after dinner in the Manor dining-room, that he asked the curtain-raising question: "Reggie, do you remember Wildacre?"

Of course I remembered him; who that had ever known Wildacre could help remembering him? And the memory conjured up a vision of one of the most attractive personalities I had ever met. Wildacre had been a friend of Blathwayte\'s and mine at Oxford; but after we left college the friendship had gradually fizzled out, owing to the extreme (not to say dull) respectability of Arthur and myself, and the exact opposite on the part of Wildacre. But what charm he had—what superabundant vitality—what artistic genius! All of which came back to me with a rush as I answered Arthur\'s question.

"Remember Wildacre? Rather! But why? Have you heard anything about him?"

"Yes," replied Blathwayte in his turn. "I\'ve heard a good deal while you\'ve been abroad. In fact, I\'ve seen him."

"Seen him! Lucky old Arthur! I should like to see him too. It would almost make one young again to see Wildacre."

"Well, it didn\'t exactly have that effect, as he was dying, you see."

Wildacre dying! The idea seemed impossible. Wildacre had always been so full of life that one couldn\'t imagine him and Death hobnobbing; they could have nothing in common with each other! And as to that Other Life beyond the grave—in which in my own way I believed quite as firmly as did Arthur—one couldn\'t imagine Wildacre at home there either.

"Wildacre mustn\'t die yet!" I exclaimed; "not till he\'s done something with all that genius of his and that overflowing energy! I couldn\'t bear to think of his dying until he\'s made a name for himself. Wildacre is a real poet, and he\'ll be a great poet some day."

Blathwayte shook his head. "He once might have been; he had it in him, but he lost his opportunity, and lost opportunities don\'t return."

"No, Arthur, you are right there. There is no bringing the shadow on the dial ten degrees backward. What is past is past, and what is written is written, and Fate sends us no revise proofs to correct. The youth we wasted or frittered or abused or ignored never comes back to us to be lived over again, though we may shout ourselves hoarse with crying for it." And for the moment the backwater feeling rushed over me with such force that I felt almost suffocated with the hopeless pain of it. "That is the real tragedy of life," I went on, "that there are no encores."

"Poor Wildacre had it in him to do great things," said Arthur, "but he lost his chance. At least he did worse than lose it; he threw it away to the swine, and trampled it among the husks."

"But he may do something even yet," I argued.

"Genius—and Wildacre had genius—never grows old. And, hang it all, man, he isn\'t so old after all! He is only two or three years older than we are, and we aren\'t really old—only buried alive, which is quite a different thing. If we lived in London instead of in the blessed, peaceful country, we should still be considered young men about town. Mind you, I\'m not grumbling: I should hate to be a young man about town, and I enjoy being buried alive; but I kick at being called old at forty-two. It\'s positively libellous!"

"It isn\'t because Wildacre is old that he won\'t do anything now," replied Arthur simply; "but because he is dead."

The words came to me with a shock. Though it was twenty years since I had seen Wildacre, I had never forgotten the vividness of his personality; somewhere at the back of my mind there had been a subconscious thought that he and I would meet again some day and pick up the thread of that friendship which at one time had meant so much to me. And now he was dead, and I should never see his handsome, laughing face again! The world seemed suddenly to have grown colder and darker.

"Tell me all about it," I said, lighting another cigarette with hands that trembled: and Arthur told me.

"Not long after you and Miss Kingsnorth had left England last February, to my great surprise I received a letter from Wildacre. In it he told me that he had spent the last twenty years of his life in Australia, but was stricken with a mortal disease, and had come home to die."

"Where did he write from?" I asked.

"From lodgings in West Kensington. He wrote further that his time was short, and he wanted to consult me about his affairs before he died. So I went at once."

A wave of intense regret swept over me that I had not been at home at the time so that I, too, could have seen Wildacre. And I was also conscious of a pang that he had written to Blathwayte in his need and not to me. The thought of my own ineffectiveness stabbed me once again in the place where it had stabbed me so often that the wound never really healed. So I was a failure even in friendship, as in everything else!

But all I said was, "Well?"

Arthur went on in his plodding way: it was always impossible to hurry him: "I found him a good deal altered. In spite of your notion that genius never grows old, he looked a good ten years older than you do, Reggie."

"I tell you I\'m not old; only buried alive."

But Arthur took no notice of my interruption. That is where he was always so restful to be with: he plodded along in his own way, utterly unconscious of any fret or worry or interruption. This was his custom in great things as well as in little ones. In my own mind I always applied to him the words of Bacon: he "rested on Providence, moved in Charity, and turned upon the poles of Truth." But I do not attempt to deny that both in moving and turning he never exceeded a speed limit of eight miles an hour.

"Of course Wildacre was very ill, and that made him look still older; but one could see at a glance that he was a fellow who had gone the pace. His hair was quite grey, and his face deeply lined."

"Yet he wasn\'t so much older than we are." It was always better to humour Arthur when he was telling a story. If one attempted to hustle him he stumbled and fell, and had to begin all over again.

"But you look the youngest, Reggie. You are very young looking for your age. If you didn\'t wear a beard, I believe you\'d still be taken for a mere boy."

"You go on about Wildacre," I remonstrated, "and never mind my beard." I was not hustling, I was merely gently guiding.

"Well, he told me that he had married nearly twenty years ago—an actress or a dancer or somebody of that kind, and that she died ten years later, leaving him with a twin son and daughter. His wife was an Australian, and he had lived out there ever since his marriage until he came home to die."

"Was she beautiful?" But the moment I had asked it I felt it was a superfluous question. Of course she was, otherwise Wildacre would not have loved her: the more sterling qualities never appealed to him. The dramatic force of the whole situation seized upon me: the brilliant poet being bewitched by a beautiful dancer, and for her sake banishing himself to the Antipodes. There was an air of adventure about the whole thing that stirred my blood, it was so far removed from anything in my decorous and commonplace experience. Beautiful dancers do not grow in backwaters.

"I haven\'t an idea," replied Arthur; "Wildacre didn\'t say anything about her looks, and it never occurred to me to ask him what she was like. Besides, it would have been an impertinence."

"I know it would, but I should have asked him, nevertheless, if I had been in your place. It is a great mistake to allow the fear of being impertinent to prevent one from obtaining useful and interesting information. But were there no photographs of her about the place?"

"I don\'t know, I never noticed any; but you know I am a poor hand at noticing things," replied Arthur, with some truth.

I nodded. "Pray don\'t mention it; it is a peculiarity of yours too obvious to require remark. But for goodness\' sake get on about Wildacre!"

"To cut a long story short," said Arthur (a thing, by the way, which he was constitutionally incapable of doing), "he explained to me that he had sent for me because all his own relations were dead, and his wife\'s people, though well-to-do, had risen from too humble a rank of life to be entrusted altogether with the upbringing of his children, and he did not think it fair to the children to trust them after his death into an inferior social position to that to which they had been born. They would be comfortably provided for—about eight hundred a year each—but he felt they must have some one of his own rank of life to look after them until they were of age and capable of looking after themselves. You see, Reggie, there are so many temptations to beset the feet of the young—and especially if they have no competent person to guide and shelter them."

"Skip the temptations of the young," I said, "and get on with Wildacre\'s death."

Blathwayte\'s amiability was imperturbable, so he merely smiled indulgently as he endeavoured, as far as in him lay, to obey my behest. He was an excellent fellow in every respect, and I had the deepest regard and affection for him, but he was apt to drop into preaching unless carefully watched.

"Well, then, to come to the point, he wanted to know if I would consent to be the children\'s guardian until they came of age. There was no one else he should be so happy to leave them with, he said; but he felt that, being a parson, I should look after them and see that they didn\'t get into mischief, and all that, don\'t you know!"

This was a bomb-shell indeed: the reverend and middle-aged Arthur suddenly converted into an amateur pater-familias!

"And you consented?" I asked.

"Of course. What else could I do when Wildacre asked me, and he was dying?" That was exactly like Arthur: the thought of himself, and of the upset to his peaceful bachelor existence by the advent of two children into the well-ordered rectory, never once entered into his calculations.

"What age are they?" I asked.

"Eighteen. They are both leaving school this term, and the boy is dreadfully backward; I am going to cram him for Oxford."

We were both silent for a moment; then I felt myself smiling. "It will be rather fun, don\'t you think?" I ventured to remark.

Arthur smiled too. "That has occurred to me also. It will be such a change to have young things about the place with all their faults and fripperies and follies."

I heartily agreed with him. "It will; for you and Annabel and I have been getting terribly middle-aged lately. I\'ve noticed it; particularly in the case of you and Annabel. And what are their names?"

"If you remember, Wildacre\'s name was Francis."

"I didn\'t ask what Wildacre\'s name was," I murmured persuasively. "I asked what his children are called."

"After him."

"Not both of them?"

"Yes, both; he said his wife insisted in calling both the children after him; so their names are Francis and Frances."

"How absurd!" I said; but all the same it was an absurdity that I rather liked. It showed how foolish and sentimental and unpractical the beautiful little dancer had been; and I had always lived in such an atmosphere of wise reasonableness and practical common sense that anything wild and foolish and unpractical never failed to exercise a certain charm for me. Annabel always strongly objected to the same initials being repeated in a family, as she said "it made it so confusing for the laundress." I quite saw Annabel\'s point in this matter, and applauded it; I should greatly have objected, owing to any confusion in initials, to have had her clean undergarments substituted for mine; but all the same I could not help feeling a sort of unholy admiration for the woman in whose eyes the claims of the laundry were non-existent.

"It isn\'t really as confusing as it sounds," Arthur explained; "as the boy is always called Frank, and the girl Fay."

"What nice names!" I exclaimed. "Frank sounds so typically schoolboyish, and Fay so utterly fairy-like and irresponsible."

Blathwayte\'s good-humoured face grew serious again. "Poor children, to lose their father and mother so young! Wildacre lived about a month after that, and I saw him frequently. I was with him when he died. It was quite peaceful at the end, and I think he was glad to have me with him."

"Then you\'ve seen the children?" I asked.

"Several times. They are wonderfully alike, with——"

But I stopped him with a wave of the hand. "Please don\'t describe them; I hate to have either places or people described to me beforehand; I like to form my own impressions for myself."

"Of course it will be a great responsibility," Blathwayte said thoughtfully; "but perhaps you\'ll help me a bit when I get into a fix."

"I shan\'t be of any use, but I\'m sure Annabel will. She\'s splendid with young people, she is so kind and sensible; and she\'ll give you a helping hand whenever you are in need of one."

"I always think Miss Kingsnorth would have made an admirable stepmother."

"Of course she would," I cried, as usual waxing eloquent over my sister\'s perfections; "but when you come to that, she\'d have made an admirable Prime Minister or Archbishop of Canterbury. There is no office which Annabel is not competent adequately to fill!"

"I wonder what she will think about the whole affair; and whether she will consider I have made a mistake, and am not worthy of the responsibility which Wildacre has thrust upon me."

"Let us go and ask her," I replied, rising from the table and throwing the end of my cigarette into the ash-tray.

Whereat we both left the dining-room and went into the great hall adjoining it, where Annabel was sitting by the fire knitting socks for me.


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