The fumes of the evening were blown away


Miranda was at the window as Peter drove off next morning in a
hansom-cab. The sun was shining, the earth green after rain. Peter was
starting on his first unaccompanied journey in his first hansom-cab, and
he was unable to feel as miserable as he should. Miranda gave him a
smile that struggled to be free of sadness at losing him for four days,
and of envy at his adventure. Peter knew how she felt, and he was angry
with himself for being happy.

The miles flew quickly by. Peter soon began to wonder in pleasant
excitement what Oxford was like.

At Oxford station he was immediately sensible of the advantages of a
town where a great many people live only to anticipate the wishes of
young gentlemen. In Hamingburgh only people with great presence of mind
can succeed in being attended to by the men who in that independent city
put themselves, as cabmen, porters, and shop assistants, into positions
of superiority to the public. Peter was amazed at the deference with
which his arrival upon the platform was met. The whole town seemed only
anxious that he should reach his lodgings as quickly and as comfortably
as possible.

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Peter’s impressions thereafter were fierce and rapid. His four days
were a wonderful round of visits. He perused the colleges, the gardens,
and the river. He called upon old schoolfellows for whom the life of
Oxford was already commonplace; who had long since forgotten that they
were living in one of the loveliest of mediæval towns; who blindly
perambulated the cloisters, weighing the issues of a Test Match. He
visited professors by invitation, and listened for the first time in his
life to after-dinner conversation incredibly polite. After his papers
were written for the day, he could make a quiet meal and issue
adventurously into the streets, eagerly looking into the career at whose
threshold he had arrived.

Peter was in a city of illusion. He constructed the life, whose outward
activities he so curiously followed, from the stones of Oxford, and saw,
as it seemed to him, an existence surrendered to lovely influences of
culture and the awful discipline of knowledge. With reverence he
encountered in the quadrangle of the college whose hospitality he was
seeking, a majestic figure, silver-haired, of dreaming aspect, passing
gravely to his pulpit of learning. This was that famous Warden, renowned
in Europe as the author of many books wherein the mightiest found
themselves corrected.

Later in the day he enviously saw the inhabitants of this happy world,
who in the morning had followed the Warden in to his lecture to get
wisdom, issue from their rooms (whose windows opened within rustle of
the trees and prospect of a venerable lawn) dressed for the field or
river. It particularly impressed Peter that in this attire they should
take their way unconcerned through the streets of the town. No one would
have dared, in Hamingburgh, to be thus conspicuous. How debonair and
free was life in this heavenly city!

At evening Peter walked in the streets and quadrangles, getting precious
glimpses of an interior studiously lit, with groups, as he fancied them,
of sober scholars in grave debate upon their studies of the morning; or,
perhaps, in pleasant reminiscence of their games of the afternoon.
Sometimes Peter would hear a burst of laughter or see through the panes
of a college window a group of men deep in poker or bridge. Peter then
remembered wild tales of the license of young bloods, and was not
displeased. It added a zest to his meditations.

Peter’s last evening focussed his impressions. It was the agreeable
habit of the dons of Gamaliel College to invite their candidates to
dinner when the trial was over. Peter accepted the invitation with
dismay. It was the first time he had ever proposed to take an evening
meal by way of dinner; he was afraid.

Nevertheless, the reality was quite pleasant. His first impression of
the dons of Gamaliel was of their kindly interest in himself. He seemed
to be specially selected for attention. The Warden in his welcome looked
perusingly at him. Peter’s instinct, quick to feel an atmosphere,
warned him, as they talked, that he was being tactfully drawn. He
noticed also the smiles that occasionally passed when he plunged into
some vigorous opinion about the books he hated or loved. Insensibly he
grew more cautious, and, as the dinner advanced, he was amazed to hear
himself, as though he were listening to someone else, saying things in a
new way. Peter was beginning to acquire the Oxford manner. His old life
was receding. He caught vaguely at a memory of Miranda, but she lived in
another world. Here he sat a king of the earth. A beautifully spoken,
white-haired servant at his elbow filled his glass with golden wine, and
as he accepted regally of delicate meats from dishes respectfully
offered, he heard himself, in tones already grown strangely in tune with
those of his companions, contributing discreet opinions.

Peter, too, was drinking. He discovered how easy it was to talk at ease,
to sparkle, to throw out, in grand disorder, the thronging visions of
his brain. Far from shrinking in diffidence from the necessity to assert
himself and to be prominent, he began now actively to intervene.

Peter never remembered how first they came to talk of bees. But he did
not for years forget the dramatic circumstances of this conversation. He
never lost the horror with which he realised immediately after the event
that he had contradicted the Reverend Warden, and that the whole table
was waiting for him to make his contention good.

“Well, Mr. Paragon, how do you explain all this?”

The room had suddenly become silent. All the little conversations had
gone out. For the first time Peter felt that an audience was hanging
upon him. He flushed, set his teeth, and talked. He talked with
enthusiasm, tempered instinctively with the Oxford manner. His
enthusiasm delighted the dons of Gamaliel, to whom it was very strange,
and his experience interested them. Peter loved his bees and handled
them well. When he had ended his account, all kinds of questions were
asked. More than ever he felt elated and sure of himself. He emptied yet
another glass of the golden wine.

“I’m becoming quite brilliant,” he thought.

Then he saw that the Warden was speaking into an ear of the white-haired
servant, glancing with ever so slight a gesture at Peter’s empty glass.
This time the servant in passing round the table omitted Peter.

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Peter was quick to understand. He arrested himself in the act of saying
something foolish. Clearly the wine had gone into his head. He wondered
whether he would be able to stand up when the time came. He sank
suddenly into himself, answering when he was appealed to directly, but
otherwise content to watch the table. He thought with remorse of
Miranda, almost forgotten amid the excitement of these last days. He saw
again the garden as it looked on the evening of his farewell. He wanted
to be away from these strange people, from the raftered hall, the table
soft-lit, beautiful with silver and glass. The voices went far-off. Only
when his neighbour touched him on the shoulder did he notice that his
companions were moving.

The Warden bade him a cordial good-bye. He smiled at Peter in a way that
made his heart leap with a conviction that he had been successful.

“I wonder,” Peter said to himself as he walked back to his rooms–“I
wonder if I am really drunk?” He had never felt before quite as he did
to-night. Now that he was in the open, he wanted to leap and to sing.

The municipal band was playing as he turned into the street. Round it
were gathered in promenade an idle crowd of young shopkeepers, coupled,
or desirous of being coupled, with girls of the town.

Peter noticed a handsome young woman at the edge of the crowd, hanging
upon the arm of a young man. She was closely observing him as he came
up. It seemed to Peter that she mischievously challenged him. Her
companion was staring vacantly at the bandsmen. Peter paused
irresolutely, flushed a burning red, and passed hastily away.

He was astonished and humiliated at his physical commotion. The music
sounded hatefully the three-four rhythm of surrender. He was yet able to
hear it as he stood under the window of his room. He saw again the
enigmatic eyes of the girl, the faint welcome of her smile, so slight as
to be no more than a shadow, the coquettish recoil of her shoulders as
he paused.

He turned into his lodgings, and ten o’clock began to strike on the
Oxford bells. He waited for several minutes till the last had sounded.
Oxford, for Peter, was to the end a city of bells. He never lost the
impression of his first night as he lay, too excited for sleep, his
thoughts interrupted with the hours as they sounded, high and low, till
the last straggler had ended. It always profoundly affected him, this
converse at night between turret and turret of the sleeping stones. It
came at last to emphasize his impression of Oxford as a place whose
actual and permanent life was in the walls and trees, whose men were
shadows.

To-night the bells invited Peter to look into the greater life he
expected to lead in this place. The scattered glimpses of a beautiful
world at whose threshold he stood were now united in a hope that soon he
would permanently share it within call of the hours as melodiously in
this grey city they passed.

The fumes of the evening were blown away; the band in the street was no
longer heard. Peter, awake in bed, heard yet another striking of the
hour. He was looking back to his last evening with Miranda. How did she
come into this new life? He thought of her sleeping, parted by a wall’s
breadth from his empty room at home, and was invaded with a desire to be
near her greater than his envy of anything that sounded in the striking
bells.

“Miranda.” He repeated the syllables to himself as the bells were
striking, and fell asleep upon her name.

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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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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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