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HOME > Short Stories > Ten Degrees Backward > CHAPTER VI ST. LUKE\'S SUMMER
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It was a bright autumn morning, and the central hall of the Manor House was given up to a Moloch worshipped by Annabel and described by her as the "Ladies\' Needlework Guild." I had learnt from long and bitter experience that the festival of this Moloch fell in the first week in October, and during that time there was not a chair or a Chesterfield or even a table in the great hall which was not covered with heaps of unbleached and evil-smelling garments. To the uninitiated it looked like an extensive preparation for something which Ponty called "the Wash," and which was long confused in my childish mind with that portion of the North Sea which separates Norfolk from Lincolnshire; but the initiated knew better. I never really grasped the true inwardness of this Moloch of my sister\'s. Once, in an unguarded moment, I asked Annabel how the Ladies\' Needlework Guild was worked and what it did; and for three-quarters of an hour on end—without even a half-time for sucking lemons—she volubly expounded to me the manifold rules and regulations of the fetish. Needless to say I didn\'t understand; but after that I always pretended that I did, for fear Annabel should explain again. As far as I could grasp the situation, the monster had to be fed with a huge meal of unbleached calico, flannelette, rough flannel and other inexpensive and somewhat odoriferous materials, served in the form of useful undergarments, some of which it swallowed whole, and some of which it generously returned to the respective parishes whence they had originally sprung. But the reasons why they were given to the monster, and why the monster gave some of them back again, I have never even attempted to fathom. But that yearly festival was to Annabel as sacred as the Feast of Tabernacles is to the Jews or the Feast of Ramadhan is to the Mohammedans; and the smell of its flannelette and unbleached calico was as incense in my sister\'s nostrils.

On this particular October morning she and Fay were apparently sorting clothes for a gigantic laundry, but were actually assisting at one of Annabel\'s most holy rites. I sank on to a settee, full of wonder at the marvellous power the gentler sex possesses of transforming into a sacred ritual the most ordinary and commonplace actions.

But I was not allowed to sit for long.

"Good gracious, Reggie, you are sitting upon St. Etheldreda\'s flannel petticoats. Do get up at once!"

I rose with due apologies to the saint in question.

"Those were St. Etheldreda\'s flannel petticoats on that sofa, weren\'t they, Fay?" continued my sister.

"Yes," replied her acolyte, "and the rest of St. Etheldreda\'s garments are on the chair by the fire-place. Hadn\'t I better put them all together, and do the Etheldreda bundle up?"

"Not yet, my dear. I think St. Etheldreda\'s garments are too scanty at present."

"Well then, they ought not to be," I said sternly; "I am both shocked and surprised."

"You see it is such a poor parish," continued Annabel "that we ought to send them a good large grant and I don\'t think the garments which we have already allotted to St. Etheldreda\'s are sufficient, in spite of the extra petticoats. I must add some more to them. Lady Westerham has sent me a lot of such beautiful scarlet flannel petticoats, Reggie, and I want to divide them equally amongst the poorest parishes. I shouldn\'t send any of those to St. James\'s, I think."

"Certainly not," I interrupted; "they wouldn\'t be at all appropriate."

Fay began to laugh. "I really don\'t see anything to laugh at," said Annabel good-humouredly; "Reggie is quite right in agreeing with me that it is not appropriate to send our best garments to a comparatively wealthy parish like St. James\'s. Those calico shirts that Mrs. Jones sent can go to St. James\'s; they\'re quite good enough for that. I always think that the Vicar of St. James\'s is a most grasping person, considering how many well-to-do people he has in his parish. I am not going to send him any of my warmest garments; I shall only send him my shirts and socks and things like that. If he wants expensive flannel petticoats he must buy them for himself, for he certainly shan\'t have them from the Guild."

"What\'s this?" I asked, picking up a grey knitted habiliment.

"Oh, that\'s one of St. Stephen\'s sweaters, Ponty knitted them," replied Annabel. "The Vicar of St. Stephen\'s is a very worthy young man, who has organized a cricket team or a football eleven or something of that sort among the poorest boys of his parish, and he asked me if the Guild could send sweaters for them to play in as they have nothing themselves but rags. Where are the rest of them, Fay?"

Fay indicated a shapeless mass of grey matter underneath the gate-legged table.

Annabel continued to flit like a bird from one heap of clothes to another, talking meanwhile in her usual irrelevant fashion. "I am very much disappointed in Summerglade\'s contribution—very much disappointed indeed. I consider it most shabby. As a matter of fact I don\'t think it is large enough to entitle them to a grant from the Guild at all. The Summerglade people will have to do without any garments at all this winter."

"Oh, that would hardly do," I meekly suggested, balancing myself on the arm of a nightgown-covered chair, like Noah\'s Ark on the top of Ararat.

"Well, they don\'t deserve any," replied Annabel sternly.

"But that has nothing to do with it," I argued, "in fact quite the reverse. As far as I can judge, the only reason for being given garments at all is the fact that one doesn\'t deserve them. If you don\'t believe me, let me refer you to the precedent of Adam and Eve."

"Oh Reggie, how silly you are to drag Adam and Eve into a thing like the Needlework Guild, which has nothing in the world to do with them. As I\'ve told you, the rule of the Guild is that for every twenty garments given by a particular parish, a grant of twenty garments is allotted to that parish; while the odd garments outside the twenties are given to the poorest East-end parishes, who can\'t afford to send any garments at all."

"I know, I know!" I cried hastily, in a valiant attempt to stem the flood of Annabel\'s explanations.

But she went on as if I had not spoken. "Therefore you see, when a well-to-do parish sends less than twenty garments, it doesn\'t get any grant at all; and that is just what I am saying about Summerglade. Summerglade didn\'t send as many as twenty garments, did it, Fay?"

"No, Miss Kingsnorth, only a measly seventeen."

"I blame the Vicar, Mr. Sneyd, for that," said Annabel severely. "He is a most feeble person, and takes no interest at all in the Needlework Guild. He called here for a subscription for Foreign Missions the other day, which I considered a great impertinence, as I cannot see what claim the foreign heathen of Summerglade have upon me. I thought him a most stupid man."

"I thought him a blooming idiot," exclaimed Fay.

Annabel started as if she had been shot. "Oh, my dear, what an improper expression to make use of."

"I learnt it from Frankie," Fay explained; "he is always calling people blooming idiots."

"But Frank is different," said Annabel, who would have found an excuse for Frank if he had committed murder.

"I don\'t recognise any difference at all," said I, taking up the cudgels on Fay\'s behalf. "I cannot see that the bloom is in any way rubbed off the idiot by Fay\'s using the expression instead of Frank."

"But it is different, Reggie. There is a difference between boys and girls, whether you see it or not. I can quite understand that, as Frank and Fay are so much alike, they seem to you like the same person. But they are not really the same, and I am surprised at your stupidity in thinking that they are."

Annabel might marvel at my obtuseness, but not more than I marvelled at hers.

Fay bent low over St. Etheldreda\'s petticoats, but not low enough to prevent my seeing that she did so in order to hide a smile, which smile, to my disgust, brought the blood into my cheeks as if I had been a raw youth of seventeen instead of an avuncular person of forty-two.

"Come out into the garden, Fay," I said, hopping down from my perch upon Mount Ararat in a feeble attempt to cover my infantile confusion; "it is a shame to spend St. Luke\'s summer in the atmosphere of St. James\'s unbleached shirts."

Annabel corrected me. "It isn\'t St. Luke\'s summer yet, Reggie—not till the 15th. And I cannot possibly leave the house until all the Guild things are properly sorted; but young people need more fresh air than people of our age do; so if you like to take Fay out for a little walk, I will ring for Ponty and one of the housemaids to come and help me in apportioning the garments."

"All right; come along, Fay, and take what fresh air your youth needs," I said rather grimly; "or else Annabel and I shall be summoned by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children."

I was furious with myself for blushing, and just a little—a very little—furious with Fay for smiling so as to make me blush; for although I had been mad enough to fall in love with a girl twenty-four years younger than myself, I had no intention of being selfish enough to ask that girl to marry me and hamper her youth with my crabbed age. Therefore I had made up my mind to keep my love to myself, and not to let Fay guess that I regarded her save in the avuncular fashion that Annabel had ordained for me. Madly in love though I was, I had still sense enough left to see that youth must mate with youth, and that it would be impossible for a girl of eighteen to love a man of forty-two as a woman ought to love her husband. But I knew that Fay was attached to me, and I felt that there was just a possibility—though hardly a probability—that she might, in her youth and inexperience, mistake that niecely devotion for something warmer. Therefore I felt bound in honour to save her from herself, in the unlikely event of her imagining herself in love with me. And I thought that the best way of doing this was to support Annabel\'s fiction of my own avuncular attitude of mind and heart.

But that smile which had endeavoured to hide itself in St. Etheldreda\'s petticoats raised a doubt in my mind as to the efficacy of my disguise; whilst the ridiculous blush on my part, which had arisen out of the smile, showed me that the garment of friendship, in which I had wrapped myself, needed a considerable amount of repair. So I thought that the time had arrived for that necessary evil which Annabel described as "a word in season."

"I don\'t wish to give credit where credit is not due," I said, following Fay into the garden and walking by her side along the denuded pergola; "and if Annabel says this isn\'t St. Luke\'s summer, of course it isn\'t. But whatever saint is responsible for it I must say he has done his work well, for a better imitation of an ordinary and garden summer I never saw."

"Isn\'t it glorious?" exclaimed Fay, absolutely skipping by my side in the sheer joy of living and drinking in great draughts of the sun-warmed air. St. Martin is another of the saints who are famous for manufacturing imitation summers, but I believe his little affair does not come off till November so I think this must be St. Luke\'s after all, a bit before the time. He may have got confused, you see, and thought it was a movable feast, like Easter. Even saints make mistakes sometimes."

"The Ladies\' Needlework Guild isn\'t a movable feast. The saints may be unpunctual, but Annabel never is. The first week of every October finds the scent of unbleached calico rising like incense from our house to heaven."

Fay fell in with my mood at once. That was one of the reasons why she attracted me so much: she was always so adaptable. And adaptability was such a change to me after forty-two years of Annabel. "Not exactly a movable feast, perhaps, but a very recurrent one. And as when you fall under the spell of the lotus-flower it is always afternoon, so when you fall under the spell of the Needlework Guild it is always the first week in October. No sooner is one October finished, than another comes close on its heels, crying out for its fill of garments."

"But how do you know that?" I asked. "This is the first October that you have been here."

Fay shook her head. "That has nothing to do with it. The Needlework Guild is one of those things that ought to be called Pan, don\'t you know!—meaning they are everywhere all at once. It existed at school, just as it does here; and the first week of October came as often then as it does now. But we can\'t grumble at however many Octobers we may get, provided they are as warm and fine and summery as this one."

Now seemed the appropriate moment for my word in season. "But they are not summer after all—at least they are only as you say, summery. These saints\' affairs may be very good imitations, but they aren\'t the real thing, you know. When once the summer has gone, it has gone, and neither St. Luke nor St. Martin can bring it back again. And it is the same with ourselves. We may look young and feel young and all that sort of thing, but we are only really young once, and when once our youth is gone, it is gone for ever."

Fay looked up into my face with her wonderful eyes, and she was so near to me that even I could see their depth and their beauty, though I still refused to follow Annabel\'s advice and disfigure myself, and indirectly my friends, by wearing spectacles. "You are very gloomy this morning, Sir Reggie." ("Sir Reggie" was the name that she and Frank had invented for me, as being a compromise between the stiffness of "Sir Reginald" and the familiarity of "Reggie.") "I\'m afraid St. Luke\'s kindness is wasted on you, and it is really very ungrateful of you, as he is doing his best to make things pleasant."

"No, I\'m not gloomy, I\'m only truthful. I can\'t see any use in pretending that things are different from what they are," I said.

"But there is great use in proving that things are different from what they seem," replied Fay enigmatically.

By this time we were standing by the old sundial. "Look at that," I said, laying my hand on the grey stone pedestal; "no one nowadays can turn the shadow on the dial ten degrees backward. It simply isn\'t done. When morning is past it is past, and when summer is past it is past, and when youth is past it is past, and not all the saints in the calendar can bring them back again."

"Still One greater than the saints once did turn the shadow on the dial of Ahaz ten degrees backward. And if He did it once, why shouldn\'t He do it again?" said Fay softly.

"Because, my child, He doesn\'t. The age of miracles is past."

"No, it isn\'t. It was a miracle when Mr. Henderson cured Frank. You said so yourself. So miracles do happen."

I was surprised to find Fay persistent on the point, but I held my own. "Yes, but not this kind of miracle. Frank was made alive again, I admit; but that doesn\'t mean that old people like Annabel and myself will be made young again. The two cases are absolutely different. A miracle may give us back our future, but no miracle can give us back our past."

Fay smiled a strange sort of smile: the sort that I remember on my mother\'s face when I was a little boy; but all she said was, "Oh, if you\'re going to pick and choose your miracles, I\'ve done with you."

"I\'m not picking and choosing my miracles, as you call it, I\'m only pointing out that certain things don\'t happen, and that people merely make unhappiness for themselves and for others by pretending or imagining that they do. I\'m grateful for St. Luke\'s summer, but I don\'t delude myself into imagining that it is the real summer come back again. I\'m grateful—and so is Annabel—for the young life that you and Frank have brought into our home and into our lives, but I don\'t delude myself with the belief that because we feel young when we are with you, we really are young. It is autumn with Annabel and me, and it always will be autumn until it changes into winter: there is no more spring or summer for us, and it would be foolish as well as futile to imagine that there is."

But Fay still argued. "Frank and I don\'t make Miss Kingsnorth feel young, we make her feel most awfully old and wise and sensible, and she enjoys the feeling. She wouldn\'t be young again for anything, it would bore her beyond words. But you are different: you are quite young really—in your mind and soul, I mean—but you pretend to be old. You aren\'t a St. Luke\'s summer at all: you are one of those June days when it seems cold and we light a fire, and then the sun comes out and we are boiled to death. You aren\'t autumn masquerading as spring: you are really a boy dressed up as Father Christmas, like those you see in toy-shops in December."

Unspeakably sweet were Fay\'s words to me, yet I felt bound in honour to show her how wrong she was.

"My dear little girl, you are out of it altogether this time. I am not a bit what you think."

"Yes, you are. But you are not a bit what you think," she retorted.

"Yes, I am. You, in the kindness and goodness of your heart, imagine that I am younger than I am, because I look younger—at least, so my friends tell me, but I am really old, my child, and in a few years\' time—when you are in the full glory of your womanhood—I shall be very old indeed." This I felt to be neatly put, as showing Fay—without my saying it—that I was too old to ask her to marry me, much as I might wish it. It cut me to the heart to put voluntarily from me even the off-chance of a happiness which far exceeded my wildest dreams; but I felt in honour bound to do it. How dare I take advantage of my darling\'s youth and inexperience to tie her to a man old enough to be her father? If I did such a thing as that, I could never respect myself again. I had never longed for youth as I longed for it now, but wishing a thing is so, does not make it so, and the sooner that men and women realise this hard truth the better for them and for all concerning them.

I knew that it was possible to make Fay love me—or rather, to make her imagine that she loved me. At present she saw no men of her own class, save myself and Blathwayte, and, without, I think, undue vanity on my part, I could not help realising that I was more attractive than—though in every other way infinitely inferior to—Arthur. But when she grew older and went out into the world and saw more men of her own age whom she could really love, she would never forgive me—as I could never forgive myself—if through my selfishness she had lost the substance for the shadow.

I had been a failure in every other walk of life, but I made up my mind that I would not be a failure as a lover. Though I had failed in everything else, I would not fail in my love for Fay. Because I loved her so much, I would sternly forego any possibility of her ever loving me and spoiling her young life thereby. Then when the time came for her to be awakened by the Fairy Prince who was somewhere waiting for her, she would bless and thank me (if she remembered me at all) for having left her free to enjoy the happiness that was her due; while as for me—well, it wouldn\'t much matter what became of me, as long as Fay was happy.

Still I wished she wouldn\'t smile as if she saw through my armour with those elfin eyes of hers.

Suddenly sounds of laughter came to us from the house.

"Let\'s go and see what\'s up," cried Fay, who never could resist the sound of laughter.

So indoors she ran, with me after her, through the garden door and down the passage into the great hall. And there a strange sight met our eyes.

Frank, attired—in addition to his own ordinary garments—in one of St. Etheldreda\'s flannel petticoats and St. James\'s calico shirts, and with a baby\'s knitted bonnet on the top of his curly hair, was dancing a break-down in the middle of the hall, whilst Annabel and Ponty and the assistant housemaid were holding their sides with laughter at the ridiculous sight of him.

Quick as thought Fay donned another of St. Etheldreda\'s scarlet petticoats, snatched a large tartan shawl from some other parish heap of garments, and started a sort of skirt-dance on her own account, and her dancing was one of the loveliest things I have ever seen. As the scarlet petticoat twirled round and round, and the tartan shawl wound and unwound itself round her slight figure, she seemed the very embodiment of youth and jollity—the living "goddess of heart-easing mirth." It made me feel young even to look at her, so full of life and joy and youth was she!

Then she and Frank began a wild dance together, like a pair of leaves blown by the wind. To and fro they danced as light as air and as bright as flame, flying apart and rushing together till one hardly could tell which was which, while the old hall rang with the laughter and applause of the onlookers, until at last—after a final whirl in which their twinkling feet seemed hardly to touch the ground at all—they sank down upon the floor breathless with laughter and excitement.

My heart beat so fast that I couldn\'t speak: the sight of their wonderful dancing had gone to my head like wine, but Annabel was differently affected.

"Get up, you silly children," she said, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes; "I never saw such a wild pair as you are in my life! But you must take off the Guild garments now and put them back in their proper heaps, or else we shall never get all the things sorted and packed in bundles."

I went out of the hall and down the passage to the library, the dance had affected me more than I would allow anybody to see. It had made me feel young again, and I knew that young was what I must never—for Fay\'s sake—allow myself to feel. If I did it might weaken my resolve to play the role of the devout lover.

"What a wonderful thing Youth is!" I said to myself. "Nothing but Youth could have danced such a dance as that." And then I tried to imagine Annabel and myself dressed up in Guild garments and springing about the old hall till the world grew young again; but even my imagination—which is generally supposed to be fairly rosy—bucked at this. Such a thing was unimaginable.

"No," I added, with a sigh, "I was quite right. Miracles do happen nowadays, but not that particular one: there is no setting the dial ten degrees backward."

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