Read CHAPTER V of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on ReadCentral.com.

AN IDYLL OF ALICE SUNSHINE, WHICH REALLY BELONGS TO THE LAST CHAPTER

If the Reader has heard enough of the amourettes of the young gentleman upon whose memoirs I am engaged, let him skip this chapter and pass to the graver chapters beyond. My one aim is the Reader’s pleasure, and I carry my solicitude so far that if he finds his happiness to lie outside these pages altogether, has no choice among these various chapters, but prefers none to any, I am quite content. Such a spirit of self-abnegation, the Reader must admit, is true love.

Perhaps it was an early unconscious birth-impulse of the true love some day to be born in his heart, that caused Narcissus to make a confession to his Miller’s Daughter, on one of their pretty decorative evenings, when they sat together at the fireside, while the scent of the climbing roses, and the light of the climbing moon, came in at the window.

The immediate effect of the confession was no wonder to draw tears. And how beautiful she looked in tears! Who would dive for pearls when the pearl-fisheries of a woman’s eyes are his to rifle?

Beautiful, beautiful tears, flow on no dull, leaden rain, no mere monotonous deluge, but a living, singing fountain, crowned with such rainbows as hang roses and stars in the fine mist of samite waterfalls, irradiated by gleaming shafts of lovely anger and scorn.

Like Northern Lights on autumn evenings, the maiden’s eyes pierced Narcissus through and through with many-coloured spears. There was thunder, too; the earth shook just a little: but soon Narcissus saw the white dove of peace flying to him through the glancing showers. For all her sorrow, his was the peace of confession. His little lie had been acknowledged, his treason self-betrayed.

And it was this.

I have hinted that Narcissus, like the Catholic Church, worshipped many saints. At this time, one of them, by a thrilling coincidence, chanced to have her shrine at a boarding-school, some fifteen miles or so from the mill-pond on whose banks the Miller’s Daughter had drawn into her lovely face so much of the beauty of the world. Alice Sunshine, shall we call her, was perhaps more of a cherub than a saint; a rosy, laughing, plump little arrangement of sunshiny pink and white flesh, with blue eyes and golden hair. Alice was not overburdened with intellectuality, and, like others of her sex, her heart was nothing like so soft as her bosom. Narcissus had first been in love with her sister; but he and the sister a budding woman of the world had soon agreed that they were not born for each other, and Narcissus had made the transfer of his tragic passion with inexpensive informality. As the late Anthony Trollope would finish one novel to-night, and begin another to-morrow morning, so would Narcissus be off with the old love this Sunday, and visibly on with the new the next.

Dear little plump, vegetable-marrow Alice! Will Narcissus ever forget that Sunday night when the church, having at last released its weary worshippers, he stole, not as aforetime to the soft side of Emily, but to the still softer side of the little bewildered Alice. For, though Alice had worshipped him all the time, and certainly during the whole of the service, she had never dared to hope that he would pass her dashing, dark-eyed sister to love her little, blonde, phlegmatic, blue-eyed Alice.

But Apollo was bent on the capture of his Daphne. Truth to say, it was but the work of a moment. The golden arrow was in her heart, the wound kissed whole again, and the new heaven and the new earth all arranged for, in hardly longer time than it takes to tell.

In youth the mystery of woman is still so fresh and new, that to make a fuss about a particular woman seems like looking a gift-horse of the gods in the mouth. The light on the face of womanhood in general is so bewilderingly beautiful that the young man literally cannot tell one woman from another. They are all equally wonderful. Masculine observation leads one to suppose that woman’s first vision of man similarly precludes discrimination.

Ah me! it is easy to laugh to-day, but it was heart bleeding tragedy when those powers that oughtn’t to be decreed Alice’s exile to a boarding-school in some central Africa of the midland counties.

The hemorrhage of those two young hearts! But, for a time, each plastered the other’s wounds with letters dear letters letters every post. For the postal authorities made no objection to Narcissus corresponding with two or more maidens at once. And it is only fair to Alice to say, that she knew as little of the Miller’s Daughter as the Miller’s Daughter knew of her.

So, when Narcissus was reciting Endymion to his Miller’s Maid, it was not without a minor chord plaining through the major harmonies of the present happiness; the sense that Alice was but fifteen miles away so near she could almost hear him if he called only fifteen miles away, and it was a long three months since they had met.

It now becomes necessary to admit a prosaic fact hitherto concealed from the Reader. Narcissus rode a bicycle. It was, I must confess, a rather ‘modern’ thing to do. But surely the flashing airy wheel is the most poetical mode of locomotion yet invented, and one looks more like a fairy prince than ever in knickerbockers. Whenever Narcissus turned his gleaming spokes along some mapped, but none the less mysterious, county road, he thought of Lohengrin in his barge drawn by white swans to his mystic tryst; he thought of the seven-leagued boots, the flying carpet, the wishing-cap, and the wooden Pegasus, so called because it mounted into the clouds on the turning of a peg. As he passed along by mead and glade, his wheel sang to him, and he sang to his wheel. It was a daisied, daisied world.

There were buttercups and violets in it too as he sped along in the early morning of an unforgotten Easter Sunday, drawn, so he had shamelessly told his Miller’s Daughter, by antiquarian passion to visit the famous old parish church near which Alice was at school. Antiquarian passion! Well, certainly it is an antiquarian passion now.

But then how his heart beat! how his eyes shone as with burning kohl! That there was anything to be ashamed of in this stolen ride never even occurred to him. And perhaps there was little wrong in it, after all. Perhaps, when the secrets of all hearts are revealed, it will come out that the Miller’s Daughter took the opportunity to meet Narcissus’ understudy, who can tell?

But the wonderful fresh morning-scented air was a delicious fact beyond dispute. That was sincere. Ah, there used to be real mornings then! not merely interrupted nights.

And it was the Easter-morning of romance. There was a sweet passionate Sabbath-feeling everywhere. Sabbath-bells, and Sabbath-birds, and Sabbath-flowers. There was even a feeling of restful Sabbath-cheer about the old inn, where, at last, entering with much awe the village where Alice nightly slept clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, Narcissus provided for the demands of romance by a hearty country breakfast. A manna of blessing seemed to lie thick upon every thing. The very ham and eggs seemed as if they had been blessed by the Pope.

It was yet an hour to church-time, an hour usually one of spiteful alacrity; but this morning, it seemed, in defiance of the clock, cruelly unpunctual. After breakfast, Narcissus strolled about the town, and inquired the way to Miss Curlpaper’s school. It stood outside the little town. It was pointed out to him in the distance, across billowy clouds of pear and apple-blossom, making the hollow in which the town nestled seem a vast pot-pourri jar, overflowing with newly gathered rose-leaves.

Had the Miller’s Daughter been able to watch his movements, she would have remarked that his antiquarian ardour drew him not to the church, but to a sombre many-windowed house upon the hill.

Narcissus reconnoitred the prison-like edifice from behind a hedge, then summoned courage to walk past with slow nonchalance. All was as dead and dull as though Alice was not there. Yet somewhere within those prison-walls her young beauty was dressing itself to meet the spring. Perhaps, in delicious linen, soft and white, she was dashing cool water about her rosebud face, or, flushed with exhilaration, was pinning up the golden fleeces of her hair. Perhaps she was eating wonderful bacon and eggs! Could she be thinking of him? She little knew how near he was to her. He had not written of his coming. Letters at Miss Curlpaper’s had to pass an inspection much more rigorous than the Customs, but still smuggling was not unknown. For success, however, carefully laid plans and regular dates were necessary, and Narcissus’ visit had fallen between the dates.

No! there was no sign of her. She was as invisible as the moon at mid-day. And there were the church-bells beginning to call her: ’Alice, Alice, put on your things!’

’Alice, Alice, put on your things!
The birds are calling, the church bell rings;
The sun is shining, and I am here,
Waiting and waiting for you, my dear.

Alice, Alice, doff your gown of night,
Draw on your bodice as lilies white,
Draw on your petticoats, clasp your stays,
Oh! Alice, Alice, those milky ways!

Alice, Alice, how long you are!
The hour is late and the church is far;
Slowly, more slowly, the church bell rings
Alice, Alice, put on your things!’

Really it was not in Narcissus’ plans to wait at the school till Alice appeared. The Misses Curlpaper were terrible unknown quantities to him. For a girl to have a boy hanging about the premises was a capital crime, he knew. Boys are to girls’ schools what Anarchists are to public buildings. They come under the Explosives Acts. It was not, indeed, within the range of his hope that he might be able to speak to Alice. A look, a long, immortal, all-expressive look, was all he had travelled fifteen miles to give and win. For that he would have travelled fifteen hundred.

His idea was to sit right in front of the nave, where Alice could not miss seeing him where others could see him too in his pretty close-fitting suit of Lincoln green. So down through the lanes he went, among the pear and apple orchards, from out whose blossom the clanging tower of the old church jutted sheer, like some Bass Rock amid rosy clustering billows. Their love had been closely associated from its beginning with the sacred things of the church, so regular had been their attendance, not only on Sundays, but at week-night services. To Alice and Narcissus there were two Sabbaths in the week, Sunday and Wednesday. I suppose they were far from being the only young people interested in their particular form of church-work. Leander met Hero, it will be remembered, on the way to church, and the Reader may recall Marlowe’s beautiful description of her dress upon that fatal morning:

’The outside of her garments were of lawn,
The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;
Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;
Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,
Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain....’

Alice wore pretty dresses too, if less elaborate; and, despite its change of name, was not the church where she and Narcissus met, as the church wherein Hero and Leander first looked upon each other, the Temple of Love? Certainly the country church to which Narcissus self-consciously passed through groups of Sunday-clothed villagers, was decked as for no Christian festival this Sabbath morning. The garlands that twined about the old Norman columns, the clumps of primroses and violets that sprung at their feet, as at the roots of gigantic beeches, the branches of palm and black-thorn that transformed the chancel to a bower: probably for more than knew it, these symbols of the joy and beauty of earth had simpler, more instinctive, meanings than those of any arbitrary creed. For others in the church besides Narcissus, no doubt, they spoke of young love, the bloom and the fragrance thereof, of mating birds and pairing men and maids, of the eternal principle of loveliness, which, in spite of winter and of wrong, brings flowers and faces to bless and beautify this church of the world.

As Narcissus sat in his front row, his eyes drawn up in a prayer to the painted glories of the great east window, his whole soul lifted up on the wings of colour, scent, and sound the whole sacred house had but one meaning: just his love for Alice. Nothing in the world was too holy to image that. The windows, the music, the flowers, all were metaphors of her: and, as the organ swirled his soul along in the rapids of its passionate, prayerful sound, it seemed to him that Alice and he already stood at the gate of Heaven!

Presently, across his mingled sensations came a measured tramp as of boy-soldiers marching in line. You have heard it! You have listened for it!! It was the dear, unmistakable sound of a girls’ school on the march. Quickly it came nearer, it was in the porch it was in the church! Narcissus gave a swift glance round. He dare not give a real searching look yet. His heart beat too fast, his cheek burned too red. But he saw it was a detachment of girls it certainly was Alice’s school.

Then came the white-robed choristers, and the white-haired priests: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

DEARLY BELOVED BRETHREN....

His heart swelled with a sobbing exaltation of worship such as he had not known for years. You could hardly have believed that a little apple-dumpling of a pink and white girl was the real inspirer of that look in his young face that made old ladies, even more than young ones, gaze at him, and remark afterwards on the strange boy with the lovely spiritual expression.

But, all the time, Narcissus felt that Alice’s great eyes were on him, glowing with glad surprise. The service proceeded, but yet he forbore to seek her. He took a delight in husbanding his coming joy. He would not crudely snatch it. It would be all the sweeter for waiting. And the fire in Alice’s eyes would all the time be growing softer and softer. He nearly looked as he thought of that. And surely that was her dear voice calling to him in the secret language of the psalm. He sang back to her with a wild rapture. Thus the morning stars sang together, he thought.

And when the prayers laid lovely hands across the eyes of the worshippers, still he sought not Alice, but prayed for her as perhaps only a boy can: O Lord God, be good to Alice already she is one of thy angels. May her life be filled with light and joy! And if in the time to come I am worthy of being ever by her side, may we live our lives together, high and pure and holy as always in thy sight! Lord, thou knowest how pure is my love; how I worship her as I worship the holy angels themselves. But whatsoever is imperfect perfect by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit....

So prayed the soul of the boy for the soul of the girl, and his eyes filled with tears as he prayed; the cup of the wonder and holiness of the world ran over.

Already, it seemed, that Alice and he lay clasped together in the arms of God.

So Narcissus prayed and sang his love in terms of an alien creed. He sang of the love of Christ, he thought but of the love of Alice; and still he refrained from plucking that wonderful passion-flower of her glance.

At length he had waited the whole service through; and, with the last hallowed vibrations of the benediction, he turned his eyes, brimful of love-light, greedily, eagerly, fearful lest one single ray should be wasted on intermediate and irrelevant worshippers.

Wonderful eyes of love! but alas! where is their Alice? Wildly they glance along the rosy ranks of chubby girlhood, but where is their Alice?

And then the ranks form in line, and once more the sound, the ecstatic sound it had seemed but a short time before, of girls marching but no! no! there is no Alice.

In sick despair Narcissus stalked that Amazonian battalion, crouching behind hedges, dropping into by-lanes, lurking in coppices, he held his breath as they passed two and two within a yard of him. Two followed two, but still no Alice!

Narcissus lay in wait, dinnerless, all that afternoon; he walked about that dreary house like a patrol, till at last he was observed of the inmates, and knots of girls gathered at the windows alas! only to giggle at his forlorn and desperate appearance.

Still there was no Alice ... and then it began to rain, and he became aware how hungry he was. So he returned to his inn with a sad heart.

And all the time poor little Alice lay in bed with a sore throat, oblivious of those passionate boyish eyes that, you would have thought, must have pierced the very walls of her seclusion.

And, after all, it was not her voice Narcissus had heard in the church. It was but the still sweeter voice of his own heart.