He could flatter himself

Peter in common daylight carefully examined his face in the
looking-glass. His left eye was a painter’s palette. He ruefully
remembered that the fight had yet to be finished. He was bound to offer
his adversary an opportunity of completing the good work, and he
distinctly quailed. Peter was this morning upon solid earth. The crisis
was past. He knew now that he had quickly to be a man, to get knowledge
and wealth and power.

Boys at Peter’s branch of the foundation of King Edward VI could no
higher ascend into knowledge than the binomial theorem. Peter, not yet
fifteen, was already head of the school–the favourite pupil of his
masters, easily leading in learning and cricket. Already it was a
question whether he should or should not proceed to the High School
where Greek and the Calculus were to be had.

Peter’s career was already a problem. Mr. Paragon inclined to believe
that the best thing for a boy of fifteen was to turn into business,
leaving Greek to the parsons. Mrs. Paragon had different views. Peter
was yet unaware of this discussion, nor had he wondered what would
happen when the time came for leaving his first school.

Peter’s company raised a chorus when they beheld him. They explained to
Peter what his face was like. They were proud of it. A terrible and
bloody fellow was their captain.

When Peter met his adversary each noted with pleasure that the other was
honourably marked.

The handsome rough thrust out a large red hand.

“Take it or leave it,” he said.

Peter took it. The bells were calling in a final burst, and he passed
rapidly on with his company. It was peace with honour.

Peter was in a resolute grapple with the binomial theorem when a call
came for him to go into the headmaster’s room. Peter, delicately feeling
his battered face, followed the school-porter with misgiving.

“Paragon,” said the headmaster, “I don’t like your face. It isn’t
respectable.”

Peter writhed softly, aware that he was ironically contemplated.

“This fighting in the streets,” continued the headmaster, “is becoming a
public nuisance. I should be sorry to believe that any of our boys
provoked it. I hope it was self-defence.”

“Mostly, sir,” said Peter.

“I rely upon you, Paragon, to avoid making the school a nuisance to the
parish.”

“I realise my responsibility, sir.”

Peter was quite serious, and the headmaster did not smile.

“Now, Paragon,” he said, “I want to talk to you about something else. I
have just written to your father. Do you know what you would like to do
when you leave school?”

“No, sir,” said Peter.

Peter had, in fancy, invented posts for himself that would tax to the
fullest extent his complicated genius. He had lived a hundred lives.
Nevertheless, bluntly asked whether he had thought about his future, he
as bluntly answered “No,” and knew in a moment that the answer was
dreadfully true. His cloud cuckooland of battle and success, magnificent
with pictures of himself in all the great attitudes of history, vanished
at a simple question. He was rapidly growing old.

The headmaster continued, pitilessly sensible.

“I want you to go on with your education,” he said. “You have done very
well with us here. I have written to your father urging him to send you
to the High School where it will be possible for you to qualify for the
University. I want you, before you see your father, to make up your mind
what you want to do.”

Peter left the headmaster’s room with a sense of loss. The glamour had
gone out of life. His future, vast and uncertain, had in a moment
narrowed to a practical issue. Should he go on to another school, or
into some office of the town? These were dreary alternatives. Already he
was fifteen years old, and he had somehow to be the most famous man in
the world within the next five years.

Peter’s father went that day to visit his brother-in-law.

Henry Prout, Peter’s uncle and godfather, had at this time retired from
the retailing of hardware. He was wealthy, an alderman of the town, and
a bachelor. He took a father’s interest in his nephew. There was a
tacit, very indefinite assumption that in all which nearly concerned his
sister’s son Henry had a right to be consulted.

When Peter heard his father had gone round to his uncle’s house he knew
his career was that evening to be decided.

Henry Prout was a copy in gross of his sister. Mrs. Paragon was queenly
and fair. Henry was large and florid. Mrs. Paragon was amiable and full
of peace. Henry was genial and lazy. Mrs. Paragon equably accepted life
from a naturally perfect balance of character, Henry from a naturally
perfect confidence in the inclinations of his rosy and abundant flesh.

Uncle Henry had one large regret. He had had no education, and he
greatly envied the people who had. His admiration for the results of
education was really a part of his indolence. He admired the readiness
and ease with which educated people disposed of problems which cost him
painful efforts of the brain. Education was for Uncle Henry a royal way
to the settlement of every difficult thing. If you had education, life
was an arm-chair. If you had it not, life was a necessity to think
things laboriously out for yourself.

Uncle Henry had made up his mind that Peter should have the best
education money could buy. Peter, he determined, should learn Greek.

“Well, George,” he said in his comfortable thick voice, “what’s it going
to be?”

He was not yet alluding to Peter’s career, but to some bottles on the
little table between them.

“Half and half,” said George.

“Help yourself,” said Henry, adding, as Mr. Paragon portioned out his
whisky, “How’s sister?”

“Up to the mark every time.”

“She’s all right. There’s not a more healthy woman in England than
sister.”

Henry paused a little in reflection upon the virtues of Mrs. Paragon. He
then continued.

“How’s the boy?”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Mr. Paragon, “he’s growing up.”

“Fifteen next December.”

“Old for his age,” said Mr. Paragon, nodding between the lines.

Uncle Henry thoughtfully compressed his lips.

“Well,” he said, “I suppose the boy will have to find out what he’s made
of.”

“He’s very thick next door,” suggested Mr. Paragon with a meaning eye.

“I’ve noticed her, George. She’ll soon be finding out a thing or two for
herself.”

“There’s a handsome woman there,” said Mr. Paragon.

“Well enough.”

They paused again in contemplation of possibilities in Miranda.

“I’ve had a letter,” said Mr. Paragon at last. The headmaster’s sheet
was handed over, and carefully deciphered.

“Writes a shocking hand,” said Uncle Henry. “That’s education. Peter’s
hand,” he added contentedly, “is worse. I can’t make head or tail of
what Peter writes.”

Henry mixed himself another whisky. “They seem to think a great lot of
him,” he said thoughtfully. “That about the Scholarships, for instance.
They say he’ll get the £30. Then he goes to the High School and gets
£50, and £80 at the University. Think of that, George.”

“I don’t hold with it,” Mr. Paragon broke out.

“Education,” Henry began.

“Education yourself,” interrupted Mr. Paragon. “What’s the good of all
that second-hand stuff?”

“It helps.”

“Yes. It helps to make a nob of my son. It’s little he’ll learn at the
University except to take off his hat to people no better than himself.”

“Can’t you trust him?”

“Peter’s all right,” Mr. Paragon jealously admitted.

“There’s no harm in a bit of Greek. You talk as if it was going to turn
him straight off into a bishop.”

Uncle Henry paused, and, desiring to make a point, took the hearthrug.

“I can’t understand you,” he continued, with legs well apart. “If Peter
is going to have my money, he’s got to learn how to spend it. Look at
myself. I have had sense to make a bit of money, but I’ve got no more
idea of spending it than a baby. I want Peter to learn.”

“That’s all right,” said Mr. Paragon. “But what’s going to happen to
Peter when he gets into the hands of a lot of doctors?”

“Peter must take his chance.”

“It’s well for you to talk. You’re as blue as they’re made, and a
churchwarden of the parish.”

Uncle Henry solemnly put down his glass. “George,” he said, “it does not
matter to a mortal fool what I am, nor what you are. Peter’s got to find
things out for himself. He’ll get past you and me; and, whether he comes
out your side or mine, he’ll have more in his head.”

Uncle Henry ended with an air of having closed the discussion, and,
after some friendly meditation, whose results were flung out in the
fashion of men too used to each other’s habit of thought to need
elaborate intercourse, Mr. Paragon rose and went thoughtfully home.

By the time he reached the Kidderminster Road he had definitely settled
the question of Peter’s career. Peter should get knowledge. He should
possess the inner fortress of learning. He should be the perfect knight
of the oppressed people, armed at all points. Thus did Mr. Paragon
reconcile his Radical prejudices with his fatherly ambition.

Arrived home, he showed the headmaster’s letter to Mrs. Paragon.

She read it with the pride of a mother who knows the worth of her boy,
but nevertheless likes it to be acknowledged.

Mr. Paragon watched her as she read.

“Yes,” he said, answering her thoughts, “Peter’s all right.”

Mrs. Paragon handed back the letter.

“I suppose,” suggested Mr. Paragon, airily magnificent, “he had better
go on with his education?”

“Of course,” said Mrs. Paragon.

Mr. Paragon knew at once that if he had persisted in taking Peter from
school he would have had to persuade his wife that it was right to do
so. He also knew that this would have been very difficult.

Fortunately, however, he had decided otherwise. He could flatter himself
now that he had settled this grave question himself. It was true, in a
sense, that he had. Mr. Paragon had not for nothing lived with his wife
for nearly seventeen years.

Peter was not happy at the High School. It is disconcerting, when you
have been First Boy and a Captain, to be put among inferior creatures to
learn Greek. Peter had risen with his former friends from the lowest to
the highest; they had grown together in sport and learning. Now he found
himself in a middle form, an interloper among cliques already
established. Moreover, the boys at the High School, where education for
such as could not obtain a foundation scholarship was more expensive
than at the lower branches, were of a superior quality, with nicer
manners and a more delicate way of speaking. He was a stranger.

At sixteen Peter was almost a man. His father had always met him upon an
intellectual equality. They had talked upon the gravest matters. Peter
had voraciously read a thousand books which he did not altogether
understand. It needed only physical adolescence to show him how far he
had outstripped the friends of his age.

The lot of a precocious boy is not a happy one, and Peter paid the
penalty. He made not a single friend during his two years at the new
school. He lived gravely after his own devices, quiet, observant,
superficially accessible to the kind advances of his masters and
classfellows, but profoundly unaffected.

Nevertheless these years were the most important of Peter’s life,
wherein he learned all that his father was able to teach him. Peter,
years after he had outlived much of his early wisdom, yet looked back
upon this time as peculiarly sacred to his father. From him he learned
to accept naturally the perplexing instincts that now were arisen within
him. Peter escaped the usual unhappy period of surmise and shamefast
perplexity.

More particularly these were the glorious years of Peter and Miranda.
Peter found in Miranda the perfect maid, and Miranda, eager for
knowledge and greedy of adoration, reaching after the life of a woman
with the mind and body of a girl, found in Peter the pivot of the world.
In these years were laid the foundations of an incredible intimacy.
Daily they grew in a perpetual discovery of themselves. Peter opened to
Miranda the store of his knowledge. There was perfect confidence. At an
age when the secrets of life are the subject of uneasy curiosity at
best, and at worst of thoughtless defamation, Peter and Miranda talked
of them as they talked of their bees (Peter’s latest craze); of the
stars; of the poets they loved (Miranda was not yet altogether a woman:
she loved the poets); of the life they would lead in the friendly world.

Miranda was the more thrown upon Peter as neither of her parents was
able to direct her. Her mother was entirely unimaginative. Her fierce
affection for Miranda showed itself in a continual insistence that she
should “behave”; read and eat only what was good for her; and be as
well, if not better, dressed than the children of her neighbours. For
her father Miranda had some affection, but she could not respect him.
She saw him continually overridden by her mother, and already she
overtopped him in stature by a head.

The months went quickly by, and soon it was the eve of Peter’s journey
to Oxford as the candidate for an open scholarship. Peter was nervously
excited. Every little detail, in his heightened sensibility, seemed
important. It was late summer, a warm night, the room filling rapidly
with shadows. Miranda sat by the window, her face to the fallen sun.

The men were talking politics. Their lifted voices grated upon Peter’s
thoughts. It was a time of strikes and rioting. Mr. Paragon, as an
orator, was urgently requested in the streets of Hamingburgh. He was
full of his theme, and extremely angry with Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith was an
entirely amiable little man, but he delighted in the phrases of battle.
He talked politics in a soldier’s terms. He was perpetually storming the
enemy’s position or turning his rear. The English political situation
was in Mr. Smith’s view never far removed from war and revolution. He
delighted in images of violence. The mildest of small men, whose nerves
were shattered by an unexpected noise, he was always ready to talk of
the prime duty of governments to stamp out rebellion in blood. Mr. Smith
could not pull a cracker at Christmas without shutting his eyes and
getting as far as possible from the explosion; but, politically, he was
a Prussian.

“Shoot them down!”

Mr. Smith was repeating a formula by now almost mechanical.

To Peter it was desperately familiar. The men’s voices every now and
then were overborne by Mrs. Smith in one of her perpetual
recommendations to Miranda.

“Take your elbows off the sill, Miranda.”

“Yes, mother.”

Miranda answered with the mechanical obedience of a child who makes
allowances.

She turned at the same time into the room, full of the contrast between
the beauty of the garden and the two absurd figures in dispute upon the
hearthrug. She looked over to Peter in the shadow.

His eyes were full of her, burning with delight.

Miranda, meeting his look, felt suddenly too glad for endurance. She
burst from her seat.

Her mother’s voice, thin and penetrating, was plainly heard above the
ground-bass of political argument.

“Where are you going, Miranda?”

“Into the garden, mother,” patiently answered Miranda, and with never a
look at Peter she went.

The men talked on. Peter quietly followed Miranda into the garden,
unnoticed except by his mother.

Mrs. Paragon had read the lines of her son’s face. She sighed as he
slipped away, knowing that at that moment the world held for Peter but
one thing really precious. She smiled, not bitterly, but with
indulgence, upon the talking fathers.

Peter and Miranda sat for many minutes without a word. The evening was
perfect, the shining of stars in a violet sky mocked on earth with the
shining of great clusters of evening primrose. How full the night
seemed! The stars were very secret, but the secret waited to be told.

“I shall not be able to bear it,” said Miranda suddenly.

“Four days,” said Peter.

“But after that.”

“Eight weeks at a time.”

But Miranda’s heart sank at the eternity of eight weeks.

Protesting with her, Peter at last said:

“I’m always with you, Miranda.”

She turned and found he was looking where Mirza glittered with its
companion star. He had written her a poem in which he had likened Mirza
to himself, eternally passing through heaven with his tiny friend.

Miranda felt to-night how empty was this fancy.

“You are going away,” she said, “and you have never—-” She stopped,
frightened and ashamed. She wished to run from the place, and she was
glad of the dark.

The feeling passed, and she lifted her head, looking at Peter. Her eyes
were full of challenge and of fear, of confession, of reserve–the
courage of a maid–proud to be as yet untouched, but happy in surrender.

“All that I have–and how beautiful it is!–is yours,” was what Peter
read.

The tears rushed into her eyes. They both were crying as Peter kissed
her. It was the first kiss of lovers two years old, the first delicate
breach of their chastity.

Miranda lifted her head upon Peter’s arm.

“I want to be with you always,” she said. “I cannot bear you to go
away.”

Footsteps intruded. Uncle Henry had come, God-speeding his nephew. Peter
had been missed, and Uncle Henry was coming to find him. Peter felt as
if the world were advancing to rob him of something too precious to be
lawfully his. He wanted to save Miranda from this intrusion.

“Good-bye, darling!” he whispered.

She understood.

“Hold me near to you, Peter,” she said. They kissed a second time,
lingering on the peril of discovery. She ran lightly away as Uncle Henry
parted the bushes and thrust his great head towards the seat.

“Hullo, Peter, my boy, is that you?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“I thought I would look round to wish you luck.”

“Thank you, Uncle.”

“Somebody did not want to see me,” said Uncle Henry, crossly following
Miranda with his eyes.

Peter flashed an indignant look upon his uncle. He could not tell him
why Miranda had gone away; how she was too precious to suffer the
contact of dull earth.

They walked into the house. For Peter the rest of the evening passed in
a dream. He made his plans for an early breakfast, received the last
advice as to his trains and the disposition of his money, and went as
soon as possible to his bedroom under the eaves.

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