Chapter 6: "Young Adam Cupid"
 

No one would have suspected Edward of being in love, but that after breakfast, with an over-acted carelessness, "Anybody who likes," he said, "can feed my rabbits," and he disappeared, with a jauntiness that deceived nobody, in the direction of the orchard. Now, kingdoms might totter and reel, and convulsions change the map of Europe; but the iron unwritten law prevailed, that each boy severely fed his own rabbits. There was good ground, then, for suspicion and alarm; and while the lettuce- leaves were being drawn through the wires, Harold and I conferred seriously on the situation.

It may be thought that the affair was none of our business; and indeed we cared little as individuals. We were only concerned as members of a corporation, for each of whom the mental or physical ailment of one of his fellows might have far-reaching effects. It was thought best that Harold, as least open to suspicion of motive, should be despatched to probe and peer. His instructions were, to proceed by a report on the health of our rabbits in particular; to glide gently into a discussion on rabbits in general, their customs, practices, and vices; to pass thence, by a natural transition, to the female sex, the inherent flaws in its composition, and the reasons for regarding it (speaking broadly) as dirt. He was especially to be very diplomatic, and then to return and report progress. He departed on his mission gaily; but his absence was short, and his return, discomfited and in tears, seemed to betoken some want of parts for diplomacy. He had found Edward, it appeared, pacing the orchard, with the sort of set smile that mountebanks wear in their precarious antics, fixed painfully on his face, as with pins. Harold had opened well, on the rabbit subject, but, with a fatal confusion between the abstract and the concrete, had then gone on to remark that Edward's lop-eared doe, with her long hindlegs and contemptuous twitch of the nose, always reminded him of Sabina Larkin (a nine- year-old damsel, child of a neighbouring farmer): at which point Edward, it would seem, had turned upon and savagely maltreated him, twisting his arm and punching him in the short ribs. So that Harold returned to the rabbit-hutches preceded by long-drawn wails: anon wishing, with sobs, that he were a man, to kick his love-lorn brother: anon lamenting that ever he had been born.

I was not big enough to stand up to Edward personally, so I had to console the sufferer by allowing him to grease the wheels of the donkey-cart--a luscious treat that had been specially reserved for me, a week past, by the gardener's boy, for putting in a good word on his behalf with the new kitchen-maid. Harold was soon all smiles and grease; and I was not, on the whole, dissatisfied with the significant hint that had been gained as to the fons at origo mali.

Fortunately, means were at hand for resolving any doubts on the subject, since the morning was Sunday, and already the bells were ringing for church. Lest the connexion may not be evident at first sight, I should explain that the gloomy period of church- time, with its enforced inaction and its lack of real interest-- passed, too, within sight of all that the village held of fairest--was just the one when a young man's fancies lightly turned to thoughts of love. For such trifling the rest of the week afforded no leisure; but in church--well, there was really nothing else to do! True, naughts-and-crosses might be indulged in on fly-leaves of prayer-books while the Litany dragged its slow length along; but what balm or what solace could be found for the sermon? Naturally the eye, wandering here and there among the serried ranks, made bold, untrammelled choice among our fair fellow-supplicants. It was in this way that, some months earlier, under the exceptional strain of the Athanasian Creed, my roving fancy had settled upon the baker's wife as a fit object for a life-long devotion. Her riper charms had conquered a heart which none of her be-muslined, tittering juniors had been able to subdue; and that she was already wedded had never occurred to me as any bar to my affection. Edward's general demeanour, then, during morning service, was safe to convict him; but there was also a special test for the particular case. It happened that we sat in a transept, and, the Larkins being behind us, Edward's only chance of feasting on Sabina's charms was in the all-too fleeting interval when we swung round eastwards. I was not mistaken. During the singing of the Benedictus the impatient one made several false starts, and at last he slewed fairly round before "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be" was half finished. The evidence was conclusive: a court of law could have desired no better.

The fact being patent, the next thing was to grapple with it; and my mind was fully occupied during the sermon. There was really nothing unfair or unbrotherly in my attitude. A philosophic affection such as mine own, which clashed with nothing, was (I held) permissible; but the volcanic passions in which Edward indulged about once a quarter were a serious interference with business. To make matters worse, next week there was a circus coming to the neighbourhood, to which we had all been strictly forbidden to go; and without Edward no visit in contempt of law and orders could be successfully brought off. I had sounded him as to the circus on our way to church, and he had replied briefly that the very thought of a clown made him sick. Morbidity could no further go. But the sermon came to an end without any line of conduct having suggested itself; and I walked home in some depression, feeling sadly that Venus was in the ascendant and in direful opposition, while Auriga--the circus star--drooped declinant, perilously near the horizon.

By the irony of fate, Aunt Eliza, of all people, turned out to be the Dea ex machina: which thing fell out in this wise. It was that lady's obnoxious practice to issue forth, of a Sunday afternoon, on a visit of state to such farmers and cottagers as dwelt at hand; on which occasion she was wont to hale a reluctant boy along with her, from the mixed motives of propriety and his soul's health. Much cudgelling of brains, I suppose, had on that particular day made me torpid and unwary. Anyhow, when a victim came to be sought for, I fell an easy prey, while the others fled scatheless and whooping. Our first visit was to the Larkins. Here ceremonial might be viewed in its finest flower, and we conducted ourselves, like Queen Elizabeth when she trod the measure, "high and disposedly." In the low, oak-panelled parlour, cake and currant wine were set forth, and after courtesies and compliments exchanged, Aunt Eliza, greatly condescending, talked the fashions with Mrs Larkin; while the farmer and I, perspiring with the unusual effort, exchanged remarks on the mutability of the weather and the steady fall in the price of corn. (Who would have thought, to hear us, that only two short days ago we had confronted each other on either side of a hedge,--I triumphant, provocative, derisive; he flushed, wroth, cracking his whip, and volleying forth profanity?

So powerful is all-subduing ceremony!) Sabina the while, demurely seated with a Pilgrim's Progress on her knee, and apparently absorbed in a brightly coloured presentment of "Apollyon Straddling Right across the Way," eyed me at times with shy interest; but repelled all Aunt Eliza's advances with a frigid politeness for which I could not sufficiently admire her.

"It's surprising to me," I heard my aunt remark presently, "how my eldest nephew, Edward, despises little girls. I heard him tell Charlotte the other day that he wished he could exchange her for a pair of Japanese guinea-pigs. It made the poor child cry. Boys are so heartless!" (I saw Sabina stiffen as she sat, and her tip-tilted nose twitched scornfully.) "Now this boy here--" (my soul descended into my very boots. Could the woman have intercepted any of my amorous glances at the baker's wife?) "Now this boy," my aunt went on, "is more human altogether. Only yesterday he took his sister to the baker's shop, and spent his only penny buying her sweets. I thought it showed such a nice disposition. I wish Edward were more like him!"

I breathed again. It was unnecessary to explain my real motives for that visit to the baker's. Sabina's face softened, and her contemptuous nose descended from its altitude of scorn; she gave me one shy glance of kindness, and then concentrated her attention upon Mercy knocking at the Wicket Gate. I felt awfully mean as regarded Edward; but what could I do? I was in Gaza, gagged and bound; the Philistines hemmed me in.

The same evening the storm burst, the bolt fell, and--to continue the metaphor--the atmosphere grew serene and clear once more. The evening service was shorter than usual, the vicar, as he ascended the pulpit steps, having dropped two pages out of his sermon-case,--unperceived by any but ourselves, either at the moment or subsequently when the hiatus was reached; so as we joyfully shuffled out I whispered Edward that by racing home at top speed we should make time to assume our bows and arrows (laid aside for the day) and play at Indians and buffaloes with Aunt Eliza's fowls--already strolling roostwards, regardless of their doom--before that sedately stepping lady could return. Edward hung at the door, wavering; the suggestion had unhallowed charms.

At that moment Sabina issued primly forth, and, seeing Edward, put out her tongue at him in the most exasperating manner conceivable; then passed on her way, her shoulders rigid, her dainty head held high. A man can stand very much in the cause of love: poverty, aunts, rivals, barriers of every sort,--all these only serve to fan the flame. But personal ridicule is a shaft that reaches the very vitals. Edward led the race home at a speed which one of Ballantyne's heroes might have equalled but never surpassed; and that evening the Indians dispersed Aunt Eliza's fowls over several square miles of country, so that the tale of them remaineth incomplete unto this day. Edward himself, cheering wildly, pursued the big Cochin-China cock till the bird sank gasping under the drawing-room window, whereat its mistress stood petrified; and after supper, in the shrubbery, smoked a half-consumed cigar he had picked up in the road, and declared to an awe-stricken audience his final, his immitigable, resolve to go into the army.

The crisis was past, and Edward was saved! . . . And yet . . . sunt lachrymae rerem . . . to me watching the cigar- stump alternately pale and glow against the dark background of laurel, a vision of a tip-tilted nose, of a small head poised scornfully, seemed to hover on the gathering gloom--seemed to grow and fade and grow again, like the grin of the Cheshire cat-- pathetically, reproachfully even; and the charms of the baker's wife slipped from my memory like snow-wreaths in thaw. After all, Sabina was nowise to blame: why should the child be punished? To-morrow I would give them the slip, and stroll round by her garden promiscuous-like, at a time when the farmer was safe in the rick-yard. If nothing came of it, there was no harm done; and if on the contrary. . . !