He repeated the question to himself

Mr. Paragon was intended for a gardener. Had he been put upon the land
at an early age he would neither have read books nor misread men:
missing these opportunities for cynicism. He might have given his name
to a chrysanthemum; and in ripe age have been full of meditated wisdom.

That Mr. Paragon at this time should sensibly have softened from the
bitterness of his youth, was as much due to his large garden as to the
influence of his wife and the effect of his prosperity. In his oldest
and toughest clothes, working as English labourers worked before they
had lost the secret, Mr. Paragon in no way resembled himself as member
of the Labour church and a popular orator. The land absorbed him. He
handled his spade in an indescribable, professional manner. You
recognised the connoisseur who gathers in his palms the rarest china.
You trust the man who by mere handling of an object can convey to you a
sense of its value. In the same way you trusted Mr. Paragon with a
spade. When Mr. Paragon took a cutting it always struck. When he
selected seeds they always were fruitful. When he built a bank or
rounded the curve of a plot the result was always pleasing; and it came
of itself, without reflection or difficulty. His gift was from nature.
He had read no literature of gardening, and he had had no instruction.
It was his charming privilege that a garden naturally blossomed under
his hands.

Mrs. Paragon encouraged in every possible way her husband’s love of the
soil. Instinctively she divined that here he was best, and that here he
was nearest herself. She was rarely without some of his flowers upon her
table or pinned in her dress; and when on free days Mr. Paragon spent
absorbed and laborious hours in the garden, Mrs. Paragon brought him
cheese and beer, or tea and muffins, waiting at his elbow, interested
and critical, while he discussed his plans, and asked her for advice
which he never regarded. Had Mrs. Paragon neglected to feed him on these
occasions he would not have noticed it, for he lost all count of time,
and did not remember he was hungry till darkness came.

The most striking event of the year for Mr. Paragon and his house was
the disposal of the season’s rubbish. For twelve months it accumulated
in a large hole, rotting in the rain and sun. Mr. Paragon dug it
carefully into the soil at the end of the year, using it as a foundation
for beds and banks. Usually the whole family assisted at the carting of
the rubbish, with a box on wheels.

Peter was master of the convoy for carting the rubbish, and this was a
military enterprise. Miranda harassed his operations to the best of her
ability. There were ambuscades, surprises, excursions and alarms.

Mr. Smith looked upon these operations with delight. He liked to see Mr.
Paragon at work in the garden. He was proud of his successful neighbour,
and took real pleasure in his competence. Moreover, he delighted in
Peter’s lively and interesting pretences. He would himself have led the
attack upon Peter’s convoy had he been free of Mrs. Smith’s critical and
contemptuous survey from the back-parlour window. Once he had actively
taken part, and Mrs. Smith discovered him on all fours among the
gooseberries, whence he had intended to create a diversion in Peter’s
rear. The rational frigidity with which she had come from the house to
inquire what he imagined himself to be doing effectually prevented a
repetition.

This afternoon there was a sharp encounter. This was a great moment in
Peter’s life owing to a brief, almost instantaneous, passage. Miranda
met Peter’s onslaught in her manly fashion, and soon they were locked in
a desperate embrace. Suddenly Peter saw Miranda, as it seemed to him
afterwards, for the first time. Her head was flung back, her cheeks
crimsonly defiant, eyes shining, and hair scattered. For Peter it was a
vision. He saw with uneasy terror that Miranda was beautiful. He had a
quailing instinct to release her. It passed; but Miranda met the look
that came into his eyes and understood.

Who can say how softly and insensibly the change had been prepared? The
books they had read; the strange couples that walked in the evening,
curiously linked; the half-thoughts and surmises; queer little impulses
of cruelty or tenderness that had passed between them–all were suddenly
gathered up.

Peter realised the difference in his life that this moment had made for
him in the late evening when Mr. Paragon was showing him a transit of
Jupiter’s third moon. Astronomy was a passion with Mr. Paragon.
Astronomy overthrew Genesis and confounded religion. He had picked up
cheap a six-inch reflecting telescope, and very frequently on fine
evenings he probed the heavens for uninspected nebulæ, resolved double
stars, mapped the surface of the moon, followed the fascinating mutation
of the variables. Peter was very soon attracted and absorbed into his
father’s pastime. It had a breathless appeal for him. Awed and excited,
he would project his mind into the measureless dark spaces. It was an
adventure. Sometimes they would rise after midnight, and these were the
times Peter loved best. The extreme quiet of the hour; loneliness upon
earth giving a keener edge to the loneliness of heaven; the silence of
the sleeping street lending almost a terror to the imagined silence of
space; the secret flavour which crept into the enterprise from the mere
fact of waking while the world was asleep–all this gave to the
situation, for Peter, an agreeable poignancy. Already he had discovered
the appeal of Shelley, and he would repeat, pleasantly shuddering,
passages of his favourite story:

“I have made my bed
In charnels and on coffins, where black death
Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,
Hoping to still these obstinate questionings
Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost,
Thy messenger, to render up the tale
Of what we are.”

The contrast was striking at these times between Peter and his father.
For Mr. Paragon every double star resolved was a nail in the coffin of
the Established Church; every wonder of the skies, inspected and
verified, was a confirmation that society was built on stubble. But for
Peter these excursions were food for fancy, the stuff of his dreams. He
soared into space, not as Mr. Paragon intended, to discover the fraud of
priests and kings, but to voyage with Shelley’s Mab through the
beautiful stars.

To-night the adventure had lost its edge. Nothing could be more exciting
than a transit of Jupiter’s third moon. The gradual approach of the tiny
moon to the edge of the planet; its momentary extinction; the slow
passage of the little shadow on the cloud-bright surface–the loveliness
of this miniature play was sharpened for Peter by knowledge of its
immensity. Mr. Paragon gave up the telescope to Peter, and waited for
breathless exclamation. But Peter was silent.

“Well,” said Mr. Paragon, “can’t you see it?”

“Yes,” answered Peter indifferently.

“Perhaps the focus isn’t quite right,” suggested Mr. Paragon. He looked
anxiously at Peter. Peter’s indifference was unusual.

“It’s all right, father, I can see it well. It’s a black spot, and it’s
moving across.”

“Wonderful!” said Mr. Paragon. “Think of it, Peter. Jupiter to-night is
60,000,000 miles away. It would easily hold 1300 of us, and it’s got
five moons. Looks as if it were made for lighting people to bed, don’t
it?”

“Yes, father,” said Peter without interest.

Peter’s fancy had suddenly flown to a passage in _Romeo and Juliet_,
hitherto passed as absurd–something about cutting up Romeo into little
stars. Peter smelled the wet earth and remembered Miranda. His
imagination to-night refused the cold voyage into space. His father’s
figures, after which his mind had so often adventurously strained, were
senseless.

His attention fell suddenly asleep at the telescope.

He realised that his father was asking him whether the transit was
finished. He started into watchfulness and replied, still indifferently,
that it was.

Mr. Paragon was mortified. He showed Peter the wonders of the universe
with a sort of proprietary satisfaction. He was proud of the size of
Jupiter. He was personally exalted that the distance between the earth
and the moon should be 240,000 miles. He had the pride of a
conscientious cicerone; of the native who does the honours of his town.
Peter to-night was disappointing.

“Well,” said Mr. Paragon desperately, “what do you think of it?”

“It was very clear,” Peter dutifully answered.

“There’s not many lads your age,” grumbled Mr. Paragon, “that have seen
a transit of Jupiter’s third moon.”

“I know,” said Peter, trying to feel excited and grateful. He had been
looking forward to this evening for weeks. Why was he unable to enjoy
it?

He repeated the question to himself as, half an hour later, he lay
peacefully in bed. Then he found himself trying to remember the exact
phrase about Romeo and the little stars.

Peter went daily to school in a dirty quarter of the town at least two
miles from home. The house of the Paragons was upon the borders of the
western or fashionable suburb of Hamingburgh. The school barely escaped
the great manufacturing district to the east and south. It was a branch
school of the great local foundation of King Edward VI. In the phrase of
the local roughs, through whose courts and alleys he passed, Peter was a
“grammar-cat.”

He was supposed to go to school by the main road, where he was more or
less under the protection of the police. For between the roughs and the
grammar-cats was perpetual war; and to take the shorter route through
the courts and alleys was an act of provocation. But Peter hankered
after the forbidden road. His father, showing him the way to school, had
stopped at a certain corner:

“This,” he said, “is the shortest way; but you had better go round by
the main road.”

“Why?” Peter had asked.

“It’s a nasty neighbourhood,” said Mr. Paragon.

From that moment the shortest route became for Peter a North-West
Passage. He would stand at the fatal corner, looking up the street with
its numberless small entries. Then, on a memorable day, he plunged.

First he had a soaring sense of his audacity. He felt he had left the
laws behind. To win through now must entirely depend on his personal
resource. At the doors of an immense factory men, women, and boys stood
in line, waiting for the signal to blow them into work. Peter felt with
a sinking at the stomach that he was an object of curiosity. He indeed
looked strangely out of place in his neat suit of a small tar, with a
sailor’s knot foppishly fastened at the breast. The curious eyes of the
waiting group followed him up the street. He was painfully aware, as he
passed, that jocular remarks in sleepy midland slang were freely
exchanged upon his apparition. Higher up the street a little rough
stopped for a moment and stared, then started into an alley screaming.

The street was suddenly alive. Peter, flinging self-respect to the
winds, started to run. A stone caught him smartly on the heel, and he
thought he was lost. But another cry was almost immediately sounded. The
helmet of a policeman came glinting up the street.

The roughs vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Peter did not again venture into this district alone. At least a dozen
of his school friends lived in the western suburb. He formed them into
a company, which daily took the forbidden way to school. Such was the
origin of a feud whose deeds and passages would fill a chronicle.
Peter’s company was long remembered.

He soon made some striking discoveries. You cannot fight with a
persistent enemy, even though his methods are not your methods, without
touching his good points. It soon became evident that he and the roughs
were less bitterly opposed than either of them was to the police. It was
also clear that the men and women of the factory were “sports.” They
encouraged the boys quite impartially, and saw fair play.

Peter particularly remembered one morning of snow and dirt outside the
big factory, when he slipped and fell, squirming with bitter pain of a
snowball hard as ice in his ear. A stalwart woman with naked arms grimed
with lead, picked him up and pressed him in a comfortable and friendly
way against her bosom. She was in that dark hour an angel of strength
and solace. The incident always lived in Peter’s memory along with the
faint smell in his nostrils of the factory grime.

On the morning after the transit of Jupiter’s third moon Peter was late.
His company had not waited. Peter had to pass his enemies alone.

He still wondered at the change which had come over him yesterday.
Nothing that morning seemed of the least importance save a curious
necessity to be still and inquire of himself what had happened.

He thought only of Miranda, wondering why he saw her now at a distance.

A company of roughs lay between Peter and his friends. He was cut off;
but it did not seem to matter. Everything that morning was unreal. He
walked quite indifferently towards them. They seemed so remote that, had
they vanished into air, he would not have been surprised.

Peter pushed loftily past a handsome young rough.

“Now then,” said the fellow.

“Let me pass,” said Peter, curiously pedantic beside the other.

“Not so fast.”

“Let go of my arm,” said Peter.

“Not much,” said the enemy.

Peter flew into a rage.

“Funk,” he said, without point or reason.

“Say it again.”

“Funk.”

“Who’s a funk?”

“You are.”

“Are you calling me a funk?”

“Yes.”

“Say it again.”

“Funk.”

There was a deadlock. Peter must try something else.

“See this face?” he inquired with deadly offensiveness, thrusting
forward his countenance for exhibition.

“Take it away,” said the other.

“Hit it,” said Peter.

“I shall if you don’t take it away.”

“Just you hit it.”

Peter’s enemy did hit it. Immediately a ring was formed. Peter fell back
into his mood of indifference to the world. This fight was a nuisance,
but it had to go on.

They fought three vigorous rounds. From every court and alley spectators
poured. Windows were flung up.

Then a policeman was seen, and in ten seconds the street was empty
again. Peter jogged off to the main road. The roughs scattered into
holes.

Peter, late for school, came up for inspection with a swollen lip and an
eye which became more remarkable as time went on. But pain this morning
meant as little to Peter as reproof. He was unable to take things
seriously. He felt curiously above them.

Home at midday he avoided his family. He felt a necessity to be alone,
to dream and to exult over something that had neither shape nor name. He
went into a secret passage.

This secret passage was intimately bound up with his life of adventure.
The gardens of Peter’s road met at the bottom the gardens of a parallel
highway. The two rows were parted by a line of trees and a wall. On the
farther side of the wall a thick hedge, planted a few feet from the foot
of the wall, had been trained to meet it overhead. After many years it
formed a natural green tunnel between the gardens. This tunnel, cleared
of dead shoots and leaves, was large enough for Peter and Miranda to
crawl from end to end of the wall’s foot, and gave them access, after
pioneering, to the trees which rose regularly from the midst of the
hedge.

Peter to-day climbed into the secret passage, not for adventure but to
be alone. The old life seemed very remote. Could he really have believed
that the tree against which he leaned was a fortress that had cost him
ten thousand men?

A humble bee bustled into the shade and fell, overloaded with pollen.
Peter watched it closely. Already he found himself seeing little
things–their beauty and a vague impulse in himself to express it.

Peter’s indifference to the impertinent call of the things of yesterday
was quite wonderful.

“Hullo!” said Mr. Paragon at dinner, “you’ve been fighting.”

“Yes, father,” said Peter.

“Goodness gracious!” Mrs. Paragon exclaimed. “Look at Peter’s face!”

“Yes, mother,” said Peter.

“Tell us about it, my boy,” twinkled Mr. Paragon.

“There’s nothing to tell, father.”

“Was he a big boy?” Mr. Paragon asked.

“Middling.”

“Did you beat him?”

“No, father.”

“Did he beat you?”

“No, father.”

Mr. Paragon looked at Peter with misgiving.

“Mary,” said Mr. Paragon in the late evening, “Peter’s growing up.”

They were sitting together in the garden, Mr. Paragon smoking a pipe
after supper. It was warm and quiet, with occasional light noises from
the wood and the near houses. It was Mr. Paragon’s moment of peace–a
time for minor meditations, softened by the stars and the flowers,
equally his by right of conquest.

Mrs. Paragon sighed. She divined a coming rift between herself and
Peter.

“He is very young,” she protested.

“He was always older than his years,” said Mr. Paragon; and, after a
silence, he added: “Don’t lose touch with the boy, Mary. We have got to
help him over these discoveries. Life’s too fine to be picked up
anyhow.”

“It’s not easy to keep with the young. There’s so much to understand.”

Mrs. Paragon said this a little sadly, and Mr. Paragon felt bound to
comfort her.

“Peter’s a good boy,” he said.

Meantime Peter in his attic was not asleep. It was his habit, shut in
his room for the night, to climb through the skylight, and sit upon a
flat and cozy space of the roof by the warm chimney. There he was
frequently joined by Miranda from the attic of the next house.

But Peter sat this evening at the window. The garden was quick with
faint play of the wind; and Peter’s ears were sensitive to small noises
of the trees.

There was a faint tapping upon the wall. Peter was instantly alert, and
as instantly amazed at the effect upon himself of this familiar signal.
He had heard it a hundred times. It was thus that he and Miranda
communicated with one another when they went up to their nook by the
chimney.

He looked into the dark room. The signal was repeated, but he sat by the
window like alabaster, his heart beating in his ears.

The knocking ceased, and for a long while Peter sat still as a stone.
Then he sprang at the cord of the skylight window, opened it and crept
out. Miranda was perched between the chimneys. It was quite dark. Peter
could only see that she was staring away from him.

“Miranda!” His voice trembled and broke, but she did not move.

He knew now he had not been dreaming. Miranda, too, was changed. He felt
it in the poise of her averted face and in her silence.

He waited to say he knew not what, and stayed there, a queer figure
sitting astride the slates. Miranda’s arm lay along the skylight. He
touched her.

She caught her breath, and Peter knew she was crying.

“Miranda,” he called, “why are you crying?”

She turned in the dark and a tear splashed on his hand.

“I’m not crying!” she flashed. “I thought you were never coming,” she
added inconsequently.

It was Peter’s first encounter with a woman. He was for a moment
checked.

“Miranda!” he said; and again his voice trembled and broke on the name.
Miranda, in a single day as old as a thousand years, vibrated to the
word half-uttered. She dropped her head into her hands, and wept aloud.

Peter held her tight, speaking now at random.

“I always meant to come,” he quavered. “You know I always meant to come.
Miranda, don’t cry so. I was afraid when first I heard you knocking.”

“You’ll always love me, Peter.”

“For ever and ever.”

Every little sound was exaggerated. There was a low mutter of voices in
the garden below. Peter saw the glow of his father’s pipe. So near it
seemed, he fancied he could smell the tobacco.

Mr. and Mrs. Paragon, talking of Peter, sat later than usual. Before
going to bed, they went into the attic, and stood together for a while.
Peter had fallen happily asleep. Miranda was comforted, and he was
lifted above all the heroes. The shadow of adolescence lay upon him.
His mother saw it, and, as she kissed him, it seemed as if she were
bidding him farewell upon a great adventure.

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