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HOME > Short Stories > Ten Degrees Backward > CHAPTER III FRANK
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One afternoon a few days after the foregoing conversations, when Annabel and I were seated round (as far as it is in the power of two persons to sit round anything) the old gate-legged table in the hall at the Manor, having our respective teas, the door-bell clanged, and the butler in due sequence ushered into our midst Arthur Blathwayte and another—which other was destined to play an important part in the dawning drama of my life.

I will try to describe him, though to my mind the Wildacres always beggared description: they were so utterly unlike everybody else that there were no known standards by which to measure them. On that April afternoon when he first crossed my path, Frank Wildacre was eighteen, and looked both more and less. He was by no means tall, but so slenderly built that he seemed taller than he really was until one compared him with other men, and this smallness and slightness added to the boyishness of his appearance. His face was neither old nor young—or, rather, it was both. It possessed somehow the youthfulness of dawn and of springtime, and of all those things which have retained their undimmed youth through the march of the centuries. It was not so much that Frank Wildacre was young; everybody has been young at some time or another, and has got over it sooner or later: it was rather that he was youth itself.

I could not tell when first I saw him whether his face was beautiful or not: I cannot tell now; I only knew that it was wonderful, strange, glorious, unlike any other face in the world—save one: and that one I had not yet seen.

I perceived that his hair was dark and curly, and that his eyes were of that deep and mysterious grey which sometimes looks blue and sometimes black: also that he had that pale delicacy of skin and complexion which makes other people appear coarse and clumsy by contrast. Thus far even my short-sighted eyes could carry me. But it was not by their aid that I became conscious of that strange and subtle gift, possessed to such an extreme degree by Wildacre and his children, which for want of a better name men call charm. It was elusive, it was bewitching, it was indescribable; but all the same it was there.

It was not the usual human charm of ordinary attractive people. It was something far more magical and spell-weaving than that. In fact it was so unusual that there was almost something uncanny about it. It was the charm of fairies and of elves rather than of "golden boys and girls": it was a spell woven out of moonbeams and will-o\'-the-wisp rather than out of breezes and the sunshine of a soft spring day. I never met any one with that peculiar kind of charm save Wildacre and his son and daughter, and his children—more especially the daughter—had it to a far greater extent than he. But it was that strange fascination of Wildacre\'s that induced Blathwayte to upset his whole scheme of existence in order to gratify Wildacre\'s whim, and it was that same attribute intensified in the twins that turned my world upside down and reduced its orderly routine to chaos.

Big, ugly Arthur—looking bigger and uglier than usual beside the ethereal boy—shook hands with us, and introduced his guest, and in a few moments the fairy changeling was sitting at the gate-legged table with us three ordinary mortals, drinking tea like any English schoolboy. But he was not like an English schoolboy in any other respect.

He was perfectly at ease with us at once, as indeed he was with everybody. There was no such word as shyness in Frank Wildacre\'s dictionary. But the funny thing was that—quite unconsciously to himself—he seemed to be bestowing a favour upon Annabel and me in condescending to drink tea with us, while (if the truth must be told) Annabel and I generally considered it rather an act of graciousness on our part to invite any one to tea at Restham Manor. I think it must have been the Winterford blood bubbling in our veins that produced this exclusive and archaic feeling, or it might have been merely a symptom of the general grooviness of single middle age.

Frank was delighted with Restham, and hastened to tell us so, thereby grappling Annabel to his soul with hoops of steel. Blathwayte had already told him the history and legends of the place; and he had assimilated these as if he had known them for years. And he not only assimilated them: he seemed to give them back again to us so enriched with the decoration of his fancy that we—who had been brought up on them—realised for the first time how beautiful they were.

"So Mr. Blathwayte has told you that we are situated on the Pilgrim\'s Road," said Annabel, after the conversation had flowed for some minutes like a river in spate.

"Of course he has," replied the boy, his delicate face aglow; "and that is one of the things that has made Restham so awfully interesting. But what makes it even more thrilling to me is that the road was a Roman road too, and so was trodden by C?sar\'s legions before such things as pilgrims were ever invented. Do you know, Miss Kingsnorth, I\'m not tremendously keen on pilgrims myself? They seem to have made themselves so unnecessarily uncomfortable, with peas in their shoes, and hair-shirts, and things of that kind. And they were so dirty, too, and seemed to think there was some sort of virtue in not having a bath when they needed one."

"And they were Papists also," added Annabel.

Frank, however, treated this fault with considerable leniency. "I don\'t mind so much about that; you see you had to be a Papist in those days or else a heathen; and though I am nuts on heathens myself, I know that lots of people don\'t approve of them. Of course I don\'t care for the modern sort of common or garden heathens, who wear black skins instead of clothes, and are the stock-in-trade of missionaries. What I like are the dear old Greek and Roman heathens, who worshipped the gods and the heroes, and who had groves instead of churches, and vestal virgins instead of nuns."

To my surprise Annabel was not at all shocked by this, as she ought to have been. But you never can tell what will shock or will not shock a thoroughly nice-minded woman. "I am glad you do not approve of nuns," was all she said, and she said it quite amiably.

"Oh, I can\'t bear them," replied Frank; "their dresses are so hideous—just like mummy-costumes; and pilgrims, you know, were all more or less on the same lines—trying to make themselves as ugly and as uncomfortable as possible. I\'ll bet you anything that when they came to the top of Restham Hill they were looking down and counting their beads instead of revelling in the view of the weald and the wind over the downs, and all the rest of the open-air jolliness."

Here Blathwayte gently interposed. "I think, my dear boy, that you are rather mixing up the Greek and the Roman periods. Remember they were two distinct civilizations."

"But the principle was the same," retorted Frank airily; "gods and goddesses and marble temples, instead of priests and pilgrims and stuffy churches. No, Miss Kingsnorth," he added, flashing his brilliant smile on Annabel, as if it had been a searchlight, "none of your medi?val pilgrims on the Canterbury Road for me, but rather the Roman Johnnies making a bee-line for London, with the adventures of a new country shouting to them to come on. Of course they\'d think that if the England south of Restham was so jolly, the England north of Restham would be ten times jollier, because the things in front always seem so much nicer than the things behind, don\'t you know!"

"Only when you are young," I remarked. "I believe it was merely the young Roman legionaries who felt like that. I expect the older ones longed to stay in the pleasant Kentish county for fear that by going further they would eventually fare worse."

The boy laughed gaily. "No, no, Sir Reginald, they weren\'t so stuffy as all that! They were out on an adventure, you see, and the adventure-spirit turned everything into a picnic. Therefore when I climb up Restham Hill I like to feel the Roman legions marching beside me, with all the fun of a new World in front of them. They shall be my ghostly companions rather than the stodgy old pilgrims who looked down at their beads and limped on their peas."

"But the pilgrims were adventurous too," I argued. "Remember there are adventures of the soul as well as of the body, and to my mind the tramp of the paid legionaries, marching stolidly up the hill in the wake of the Roman eagles, was nothing like so thrilling an adventure as the descent of the same hill by the bands of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. The Roman soldier had no individual interests: he was part of a huge system or machine. It mattered little to him personally whether the particular eagle which he followed hovered over Britain or over Gaul."

Here Arthur interrupted me. "The pilgrim was part of a huge system also, only his system was not called an Empire, but a Church."

"Precisely," I answered; "and there is where the greater adventurousness of the pilgrim comes in; for it is far more exciting to belong to a Church than to an Empire."

"My hat!" exclaimed the irrepressible boy; "if a fellow will say that he\'ll say anything!"

"I will say anything," I replied, "often I do, provided, of course, that anything is true."

"Or that you think it true," amended Arthur.

"Which comes to the same thing, as far as I am concerned," I added.

"I do not agree with you in that," said Annabel; "thinking things are so, doesn\'t make them so."

"Morally speaking it does," I argued. "If I think it is wrong to eat meat on a Friday, it is wrong of me to eat it; and if I think it is wrong to play games on a Sunday, it is wrong of me to play them."

"Not at all," retorted Annabel; "the cases are absolutely different. It is wrong to play games on a Sunday, and would be just as wrong for you as for anybody else. But as to there being anything wrong in eating meat on a Friday, the idea is absolutely absurd, and nothing that you could think about it would make it an atom less ridiculous."

"Annabel, you are simply priceless!" I exclaimed.

"I see no pricelessness in that," replied my sister; "I\'m only talking common sense."

"Not common, Annabel; far from common; sense as rare as it is priceless!"

"Oh, Reggie, how silly you are! Isn\'t he absurd, Mr. Wildacre?"

"Please don\'t call me Mr. Wildacre, it makes me feel a hundred, and an enemy at that. Call me Frank, and in return I\'ll call Sir Reginald any name you like. And now, Sir Reginald, please tell us why you think your pilgrims had more fun in the long run than my legions?"

"Simply because their run was so much longer, and so could hold so much more. You admit that the adventure of the legions consisted in their anticipations of seeing and possessing a new country; but I maintain that the adventure on which the pilgrims had embarked included not only a new country, but a new heaven and a new earth. The Pilgrims\' Way was not merely the way to Canterbury: it was the way, via Canterbury, to the New Jerusalem."

The mocking grey eyes suddenly grew thoughtful. "I see what you are driving at, Sir Reginald. You are thinking of all that the pilgrimage stood for rather than of just the pilgrimage itself."

"Of course I am. And to find the true value of anything, you must think of all that it stands for rather than of the thing itself. The Crown of England means more than the bejewelled head-gear which is kept in a glass case in the Tower; the colours of a regiment are not valued at the rate of so much per yard of tattered silk; and a wedding-ring means far more to a woman than an ounce or so of twenty-two carat gold."

"Are wedding-rings made of twenty-two carat gold?" asked Annabel in her unquenchable thirst for information; "I thought eighteen carat was the purest gold ever used."

"So it is for ordinary jewellery," explained Arthur; "but wedding-rings, I have always heard, are made of twenty-two carat. At least that is what is generally believed; but I cannot say whether it is more than a tradition, like the idea that the sun will put a fire out."

"But is that only a tradition?" Annabel asked. "I always pull the blinds down when the sunshine falls on the fire, for fear of putting it out."

"For fear of putting which out," I inquired, "the sunshine or the fire?"

"The fire, of course. How could anything put the sunshine out, Reggie? How silly you are!"

"It is pure superstition," answered Blathwayte, who found it as blessed to give information as did my sister to receive it; "a fire naturally by force of contrast looks less brilliant in the sunlight than in the shade, but the sunlight has no actual effect on it whatsoever."

At this juncture I happened to catch Frank\'s eye, and to my delight perceived that the humour of the situation struck him as it struck me. Of course I knew how funny it was of Annabel and Arthur to take hold of all the romance of life, and transmute it—by some strange alchemy of their own—into useful and intelligent information; I had seen them at it for years and years, and had never failed to enjoy the sight; but it was very clever of Frank, who had known Arthur for two months and Annabel for twenty minutes, to see that it was funny also.

"My last question was not so silly after all," I remarked. "I think the sunshine of life is frequently extinguished by a too great absorption in the cares of the domestic hearth. See, for instance, those numerous cases where the energy of the spring-fever expends itself upon the exigencies of the spring-cleaning."

"I hate a spring-cleaning," exclaimed Frank: "it always means that everything is put back into something else\'s place, and you can never find anything you want till you\'ve left off wanting it."

"But you find all the things you wanted the spring before last," I added, "and have now forgotten that you ever possessed, and have no longer any use for."

"And all your books seem to have played General Post," continued Frank; "Volume One has changed places with Volume Six, and the dictionary is where the Bible ought to be, and the cookery book is among the poems."

"I never keep a Bible in a bookcase," remarked Annabel; "it somehow doesn\'t seem reverent to do so."

I could not let this pass. "Yes, you do: you keep one in that bookcase in your bedroom. I\'ve seen it there."

"Oh! a bookcase in a bedroom is quite a different thing from an ordinary library bookcase, Reggie; in fact I never keep any but religious books in my bedroom bookcase. One doesn\'t, somehow."

"I cannot see," I argued, "why a hanging bookcase in a bedroom—forming, mark you, a companion ornament to the medicine-chest on the other side of the wardrobe—is a more reverent resting-place for a Bible than is the shelf of a well-stocked library. Why should clothes and drugs exhale a more holy atmosphere than secular literature?"

But no arguments ever shook Annabel. "I can\'t explain why it\'s different, but it is different, Reggie; and if you don\'t see it, you ought to. And I\'m sure the sun does put it out, Arthur, because I\'ve seen it do it."

Whereupon Arthur proceeded to expound at some length the reason why it was scientifically impossible for sunlight to put out firelight; whilst Frank and I took the opportunity of stepping out-of-doors into the garden.

"I see what you mean about things being so much more than they actually are, Sir Reginald," began the boy as soon as we were out of earshot of the effects—or rather the non-effects—of sun upon fire; "it never struck me quite like that before, but it makes everything most awfully interesting when you look at it in that way."

"I know it does. And it is not only the most interesting way—it is also the truest way—of looking at things. You see, when you realise how much is involved in even the smallest happenings—how much romance and excitement and general thrilliness—it turns everything into the most glorious adventure."

Frank nodded his approval of these sentiments. "I know, and adventures are such splendid things, aren\'t they? But I say, it\'s most awfully decent of you to have ideas like this, and to be so keen on adventures and things of that kind!"

"At my age, you mean?" I added, with a smile; but I cannot affirm that the smile was untainted by bitterness.

Frank nodded again. "You might be the same age as Fay and me, to hear you talk," he replied, with more graciousness than grammar. "I\'ll tell you what: Fay will like you most awfully. She is tremendously keen on people who have queer ideas and talk about feelings and things of that kind. She hates ordinary sort of talk about clothes and the weather and other people\'s servants, and she positively loathes information, or anything at all instructive."

"Then I am afraid she and my sister will not have much in common," I said, little dreaming that, like Micaiah the son of Imlah, I was prophesying evil concerning me.

"Not they! Fay\'ll have no use for Miss Kingsnorth, and not much for old Blathwayte. They\'ll be altogether too improving for her. But she\'ll take to you most tremendously, you bet!"

I was elated at this. The approval of one\'s juniors is apt to go to one\'s head like wine. But at the same time I felt a certain disloyalty in being uplifted at Annabel\'s expense. "Fay will find my sister a very kind friend as well as a very competent one," I replied rather stiffly.

But my stiffness was wasted on the desert air. "Oh, I\'m sure Miss Kingsnorth is awfully kind," said Frank airily, "and so is old Blathwayte, if you come to that. But they aren\'t a bit Fay\'s sort. Just as really they aren\'t your sort, if they weren\'t your sister and your rector. Of course one would like one\'s sister, whatever she was; I should be fond of Fay, even if she was like Miss Kingsnorth; but she wouldn\'t be my sort, do you see? In the same way Fay and I would have been fond of Father whatever he\'d have been like, just because he was our father. But he happened to be our sort as well, so we simply adored him."

This slightly took my breath away. I had not yet been broken in to the custom of the rising generation of discussing their elders as freely as they discuss their contemporaries. The ancient tradition of ordering myself lowly and reverently before my betters still tainted my blood, and I had not outworn the Victorian creed that one\'s elders are of necessity one\'s betters.

"It would never have occurred to me to consider whether my parents were my sort or not," I said.

"It would to me—the very first thing. You see, some families are all the same sort, like a set of tea-things, while others are just a scratch team. We were all the same sort—Father and Fay and me. But you and Miss Kingsnorth are not the same pattern, nor the same make, nor even the same material. You are pure scratch."

I smiled. Though I was devoted to Annabel, I did not exactly yearn to be considered like her. "Then do you honour me by considering me your sort as well as your sister\'s?"

"It\'s the same thing: Fay\'s sort is always my sort. We\'re as much alike inside as we are out, and we always feel the same about things and people. It\'s most awfully lucky for us," continued the boy, slipping his arm into mine in a delightfully confidential fashion as we strolled up and down the lawn, "that you happen to be our sort, as it would have been rather rough luck on Fay and me to have nobody better to talk to than old Blathwayte. But now that you are so decent we shall manage quite well."

Had I possessed any aptitude for the word in season, I should have here endeavoured to rub in some salutary suggestions as to poor Arthur\'s kindness in throwing open his celibate rectory to two homeless orphans; but the improvement of other people has never been one of my foibles. "It will make it much jollier for me, too, to have you and your sister to talk to," was all I said.

"I liked that idea of yours about the pilgrims most awfully," continued Frank, with the glorious patronage of youth; "it is so jolly to think of their being on an adventure as well as the Roman legions."

"And starting in a much more adventurous spirit, because a so much more imaginative one. For my part I don\'t believe the tramping soldiers saw much further than their own Roman noses, while the pilgrims beheld visions of the earthly Jerusalem as they made the Holy Sign upon the holy stone from Palestine, and visions of the heavenly Jerusalem as they approached the towers of Canterbury."

"And what makes it so much more interesting to us, when you come to think of it, is that the Roman adventure came to an end ages and ages ago," added Frank; "while the pilgrims\' adventure is still going on, and we\'re sort of part of it—at least we can be if we like."

I could have shouted aloud for joy to have chanced upon so kindred a spirit. "Exactly so," I answered; "my dear boy, you have grasped the idea of what it means to belong to an historic Church: it is the idea of being all part of the one great adventure."

"I know; just like things that have happened to one\'s own ancestry are so much more thrilling than things which happened to other people\'s, because they\'re all in the family, don\'t you see?"

By this time Blathwayte had apparently succeeded in convincing Annabel that the sun could not put a fire out—or else Annabel had succeeded in convincing him that a fire could put the sun out—I have never yet discovered which; but any way the argument had arrived at a satisfactory conclusion, and the combatants came into the garden together in perfect amity, whereupon Annabel carried off Frank to show him the unworthy forget-me-nots, and consult him as to her dealings with them, whilst Arthur discussed with me the course of proceedings of the coming Easter vestry. Some men have greatness thrust upon them, and the greatness of being rector\'s warden of Restham parish had been thrust upon me by Blathwayte some years previously.

Thus began my friendship with Frank Wildacre—a friendship which was destined to bring sorrow as well as joy into my life. Do I wish that I had never known him, and so had escaped all the pain that he was foredoomed to cause me? I cannot say. Life would doubtless have been far easier for me had he never crossed my path. But on the other hand he was part of the great adventure on which I embarked when I forsook my backwater, and I still feel for him—after all that has happened—that sense of comradeship which the sharing of an adventure always leaves behind it after the battles and the bitterness are over and done with.

I think that is the reason why—as one grows older—one feels an interest in people one knew when one was young, even if one felt no interest in them at the time. They were part of the great adventure of one\'s youth.

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