The Literary Sense

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The Literary Sense


THE white crescent of the little new moon blinked at us through the yew boughs. As you walk up the churchyard you see thirteen yews on each side of you, and yet, if you count them up, they make twenty-seven, and it has been pointed out to me that neither numerical fact can be without occult significance. The jugglery in numbers is done by the seventh yew on the left, which hides a shrinking sister in the amplitude of its shadow.

The midsummer day was dying in a golden haze. Amid the gathering shadows of the churchyard her gown gleamed white, ghostlike.

"Oh, there's the new moon," she said. "I am so glad. Take your hat off to her and turn the money in your pocket, and you will get whatever you wish for, and be rich as well."

I obeyed with a smile, half of whose meaning she answered.

"No," she said, "I am not really superstitious; I'm not at all sure that the money is any good, or the hat, but of course everyone knows it's unlucky to see it through glass."

"Seen through glass," I began, "a hat presents a gloss which on closer inspection – "

"No, no, not a hat, the moon, of course. And you might as well pretend that it's lucky to upset the salt, or to kill a spider, especially on a Tuesday, or on your hat."

"Hats," I began again, "certainly seem to – "

"It's not the hat," she answered, pulling up the wild thyme and crushing it in her hands, "you know very well it's the spider. Doesn't that smell sweet?"

She held out the double handful of crushed sun-dried thyme, and as I bent my face over the cup made by her two curved hands, I was constrained to admit that the fragrance was delicious.

"Intoxicating even," I added.

"Not that. White lilies intoxicate you, so does mock-orange; and white may too, only it's unlucky to bring it into the house."

I smiled again.

"I don't see why you should call it superstitious to believe in facts," she said. "My cousin's husband's sister brought some may into her house last year, and her uncle died within the month."

"My husband's uncle's sister's niece
Was saved from them by the police.
She says so, so I know it's true – "

I had got thus far in my quotation when she interrupted me.

"Oh, well, if you're going to sneer!" she said, and added that it was getting late, and that she must go home.

"Not yet," I pleaded. "See how pretty everything is. The sky all pink, and the red sunset between the yews, and that good little moon. And how black the shadows are under the buttresses. Don't go home – already they will have lighted the yellow shaded lamps in your drawing-room. Your sister will be sitting down to the piano. Your mother is trying to match her silks. Your brother has got out the chess board. Someone is drawing the curtains. The day is over for them, but for us, here, there is a little bit of it left."

We were sitting on the lowest step of a high, square tomb, moss-grown and lichen-covered. The yellow lichens had almost effaced the long list of the virtues of the man on whose breast this stone had lain, as itself in round capitals protested, since the year of grace 1703. The sharp-leafed ivy grew thickly over one side of it, and the long, uncut grass came up between the cracks of its stone steps.

"It's all very well," she said severely.

"Don't be angry," I implored. "How can you be angry when the bats are flying black against the rose sky, when the owl is waking up – his is a soft, fluffy awakening – and wondering if it's breakfast time?"

"I won't be angry," she said. "Besides the owl, it's disrespectful to the dear, sleepy, dead people to be angry in a churchyard. But if I were really superstitious, you know, I should be afraid to come here at night."

"At the end of the day," I corrected. "It is not night yet. Tell me before the night comes all the wonderful things you believe. Recite your credo."

"Don't be flippant. I don't suppose I believe more unlikely things than you do. You believe in algebra and Euclid and log – what's-his-names. Now I don't believe a word of all that."

"We have it on the best authority that by getting up early you can believe six impossible things before breakfast."

"But they're not impossible. Don't you see that's just it? The things I like to believe are the very things that might be true. And they're relics of a prettier time than ours, a time when people believed in ghosts and fairies and witches and the devil – oh, yes! and in God and His angels, too. Now the times are bound in yellow brick, and we believe in nothing but … Euclid and – and company prospectuses and patent medicines."

When she is a little angry she is very charming, but it was too dark for me to see her face.

"Then," I asked, "it is merely the literary sense that leads you to make the Holy Sign when you find two knives crossed on your table, or to knock under the table and cry 'Unberufen' when you have provoked the Powers with some kind word of the destiny they have sent you?"

"I don't," she said. "I don't talk foreign languages."

"You say, 'unbecalled for,' I know, but this is mere subterfuge. Is it the literary sense that leads you to treasure farthings, to refuse to give pins, to object to a dinner party of thirteen, to fear the plucking of the golden elder, to avoid coming back to the house when once you've started, even if you've forgotten your prayer-book or your umbrella, to decline to pass under a ladder – "

"I always go under a ladder," she interrupted, ignoring the other counts; "it only means you won't be married for seven years."

"I never go under ladders. Tell me, is it the literary sense?"

"Bother the literary sense," she said. "Bother" is not a pretty word, but this did not strike me till I came to write it down. "Look," she went on, "at the faint primrose tint over the pine trees and those last pink clouds high up in the sky."

I could see the outline of her lifted chin and her throat against the yew shadows, but I determined to be wise. I looked at the pine trees and said —

"I want you to instruct me. Why is it unlucky to break a looking-glass? and what is the counter-charm?"

"I don't know" – there was some awe in her voice – "I don't think there is any counter-charm. If I broke a looking-glass I believe I should have to give up believing in these things altogether. It would make me too unhappy."

I was discreet enough to pass by the admission.

"And why is it unlucky to wear black at a wedding? And if anyone did wear black at your wedding, what would you do?"

"You are very tiresome this evening," she said. "Why don't you keep to the point? Nobody was talking of weddings, and if you must wander, why not stray in more amusing paths? Why don't you talk of something interesting? Why do you try to be disagreeable? If you think I'm silly to believe all these nice picturesque things, why don't you give me your solid, dull, dry, scientific reasons for not believing them?"

"Your wish is my law," I responded with alacrity. "Superstition, then, is the result of the imperfect recognition in unscientific ages of the relations of cause and effect. To persons unaccustomed correctly to assign causes, one cause is as likely as another to produce a given effect. Hallucinations of the senses have also, doubtless – "

"And now you're only dull," she said.

The light had slowly faded while we spoke till the churchyard was almost dark, the grass was heavy with dew, and sadness had crept like a shadow over the quiet world.

"I am sorry. Everything I say is wrong to-night. I was born under an unlucky star. Forgive me."

"It was I who was cross," she admitted at once very cheerfully, but, indeed, not without some truth. "But it doesn't do anyone any harm to play at believing things; honestly, I'm not sure whether I believe them or not, but they have some colour about them in an age grown grey in its hateful laboratories and workshops. I do want to try to tell you if you really want to know about it. I can't think why, but if I meet a flock of sheep I know it is lucky, and I'm cheered; and if a hare crosses the path I feel it is unlucky, and I'm sad; and if I see the new moon through glass I'm positively wretched. But all the same, I'm not superstitious. I'm not afraid of ghosts or dead people, or things like that" – I'm not sure that she did not add, "So there!"

"Would you dare to go to the church door at twelve at night and knock three times?" I asked, with some severity.

"Yes," she said stoutly, though I know she quailed, "I would. Now you'll admit that I'm not superstitious."

"Yes," I said, and here I offer no excuse. The devil entered into me, and though I see now what a brute beast I was, I cannot be sorry. "I own that you are not superstitious. How dark it is growing. The ivy has broken the stone away just behind your head: there is quite a large hole in the side of the tomb. No, don't move, there's nothing there. If you were superstitious you might fancy, on a still, dark, sweet evening like this, that the dead man might wake and want to come up out of his coffin. He might crouch under the stone, and then, trying to come out, he might very slowly reach out his dead fingers and touch your neck. Ah!"

The awakened wind had moved an ivy spray to the suggested touch. She sprang up with a cry, and the next moment she was clinging wildly to me, as I held her in my arms.

"Don't cry, my dear, oh, don't! Forgive me, it was the ivy."

She caught her breath.

"How could you! how could you!"

And still I held her fast, with – as she grew calmer – a question in the clasp of my arms, and, presently, on my lips.

"Oh, my dear, forgive me! And is it true – do you? – do you?"


"Yes – no – I don't know… No, no, not through my veil, it is so unlucky!"


SHE opened the window, at which no light shone. All the other windows were darkly shuttered. The night was still: only a faint breath moved among the restless aspen leaves. The ivy round the window whispered hoarsely as the casement, swung back too swiftly, rested against it. She had a large linen sheet in her hands. Without hurry and without delayings she knotted one corner of it to the iron staple of the window. She tied the knot firmly, and further secured it with string. She let the white bulk of the sheet fall between the ivy and the night, then she climbed on to the window-ledge, and crouched there on her knees. There was a heart-sick pause before she grasped the long twist of the sheet as it hung – let her knees slip from the supporting stone and swung suddenly, by her hands. Her elbows and wrists were grazed against the rough edge of the window-ledge – the sheet twisted at her weight, and jarred her shoulder heavily against the house wall. Her arms seemed to be tearing themselves from their sockets. But she clenched her teeth, felt with her feet for the twisted ivy stems on the side of the house, found foothold, and the moment of almost unbearable agony was over. She went down, helped by feet and hands, and by ivy and sheet, almost exactly as she had planned to do. She had not known it would hurt so much – that was all. Her feet felt the soft mould of the border: a stout geranium snapped under her tread. She crept round the house, in the house's shadow – found the gardener's ladder – and so on to the high brick wall. From this she dropped, deftly enough, into the suburban lane: dropped, too, into the arms of a man who was waiting there. She hid her face in his neck, trembling, and said, "Oh, Harry – I wish I hadn't!" Then she began to cry helplessly. The man, receiving her embrace with what seemed in the circumstances a singularly moderated enthusiasm, led her with one arm still lightly about her shoulders down the lane: at the corner he stood still, and said in a low voice —

"Hush – stop crying at once! I've something to say to you."

She tore herself from his arm, and gasped.

"It's not Harry," she said. "Oh, how dare you!" She had been brave till she had dropped into his arms. Then the need for bravery had seemed over. Now her tears were dried swiftly and suddenly by the blaze of anger and courage in her eyes.

"Don't be unreasonable," he said, and even at that moment of disappointment and rage his voice pleased her. "I had to get you away somehow. I couldn't risk an explanation right under your aunt's windows. Harry's sprained his knee – cricket. He couldn't come."

A sharp resentment stirred in her against the lover who could play cricket on the very day of an elopement.

"He told you to come? Oh, how could he betray me!"

"My dear girl, what was he to do? He couldn't leave you to wait out here alone – perhaps for hours."

"I shouldn't have waited long," she said sharply; "you came to tell me: now you've told me – you'd better go."

"Look here," he said with gentle calm, "I do wish you'd try not to be quite so silly. I'm Harry's doctor – and a middle-aged man. Let me help you. There must be some better way out of your troubles than a midnight flight and a despairingly defiant note on the pin-cushion."

"I didn't," she said. "I put it on the mantelpiece. Please go. I decline to discuss anything with you."

"Ah, don't!" he said; "I knew you must be a very romantic person, or you wouldn't be here; and I knew you must be rather sill – well, rather young, or you wouldn't have fallen in love with Harry. But I did not think, after the brave and practical manner in which you kept your appointment, I did not think that you'd try to behave like the heroine of a family novelette. Come, sit down on this heap of stones – there's nobody about. There's a light in your house now. You can't go back yet. Here, let me put my Inverness round you. Keep it up round your chin, and then if anyone sees you they won't know who you are. I can't leave you alone here. You know what a lot of robberies there have been in the neighbourhood lately; there may be rough characters about. Come now, let's think what's to be done. You know you can't get back unless I help you."

"I don't want you to help me; and I won't go back," she said.

But she sat down and pulled the cloak up round her face.

"Now," he said, "as I understand the case – it's this. You live rather a dull life with two tyrannical aunts – and the passion for romance…"

"They're not tyrannical – only one's always ill and the other's always nursing her. She makes her get up and read to her in the night. That's her light you saw – "

"Well, I pass the aunts. Anyhow, you met Harry – somehow – "

"It was at the Choral Society. And then they stopped my going – because he walked home with me one wet night."

"And you have never seen each other since?"

"Of course we have."

"And communicated by some means more romantic than the post?"

"It wasn't romantic. It was tennis-balls."


"You cut a slit and squeeze it and put a note in, and it shuts up and no one notices it. It wasn't romantic at all. And I don't know why I should tell you anything about it."

"And then, I suppose, there were glances in church, and stolen meetings in the passionate hush of the rose-scented garden."

"There's nothing in the garden but geraniums," she said, "and we always talked over the wall – he used to stand on their chicken house, and I used to turn our dog kennel up on end and stand on that. You have no right to know anything about it, but it was not in the least romantic."

"No – that sees itself! May I ask whether it was you or he who proposed this elopement?"

"Oh, how dare you!" she said, jumping up; "you have no right to insult me like this."

He caught her wrist. "Sit down, you little firebrand," he said. "I gather that he proposed it. You, at any rate, consented, no doubt after the regulation amount of proper scruples. It's all very charming and idyllic and – what are you crying for? Your lost hopes of a happy life with a boy you know nothing of, a boy you've hardly seen, a boy you've never talked to about anything but love's young dream?"

"I'm not crying," she said passionately, turning her streaming eyes on him, "you know I'm not – or if I am, it's only with rage. You may be a doctor – though I don't believe you are – but you're not a gentleman. Not anything like one!"

"I suppose not," he said; "a gentleman would not make conditions. I'm going to make one. You can't go to Harry, because his Mother would be seriously annoyed if you did; and so, believe me, would he – though you don't think it. You can get up and leave me, and go 'away into the night,' like a heroine of fiction – but you can't keep on going away into the night for ever and ever. You must have food and clothes and lodging. And the sun rises every day. You must just quietly and dully go home again. And you can't do it without me. And I'll help you if you'll promise not to see Harry, or write to him for a year."

"He'll see me. He'll write to me," she said with proud triumph.

"I think not. I exacted the promise from him as a condition of my coming to meet you."

"And he promised?"


There was a long silence. She broke it with a voice of concentrated fury.

"If he doesn't mind, I don't," she said. "I'll promise. Now let me go back. I wish you hadn't come – I wish I was dead."

"Come," he said, "don't be so angry with me. I've done what I could for you both."

"On conditions!"

"You must see that they are good, or you wouldn't have accepted them so soon. I thought it would have taken me at least an hour to get you to consent. But no – ten minutes of earnest reflection are enough to settle the luckless Harry's little hash. You're quite right – he doesn't deserve more! I am pleased with myself, I own. I must have a very convincing manner."

"Oh," she cried passionately, "I daresay you think you've been very clever. But I wish you knew what I think of you. And I'd tell you for twopence."

"I'm a poor man, gentle lady – won't you tell me for love?" His voice was soft and pleading beneath the laugh that stung her.

"Yes, I will tell you – for nothing," she cried. "You're a brute, and a hateful, interfering, disagreeable, impertinent old thing, and I only hope you'll have someone be as horrid to you as you've been to me, that's all!"

"I think I've had that already – quite as horrid," he said grimly. "This is not the moment for compliments – but you have great powers. You are brave, and I never met anyone who could be more 'horrid,' as you call it, in smaller compass, all with one little tiny adjective. My felicitations. You are clever. Come – don't be angry any more – I had to do it – you'll understand some day."

"You wouldn't like it yourself," she said, softening to something in his voice.

"I shouldn't have liked it at your age," he said; "sixteen – fifteen – what is it?"

"I'm nineteen next birthday," she said with dignity.

"And the date?"

"The fifteenth of June – I don't know what you mean by asking me."

"And to-day's the first of July," he said, and sighed. "Well, well! – if your Highness will allow me, I'll go and see whether your aunt's light is out, and if it is, we'll attempt the re-entrance."

He went. She shivered, waiting for what felt like hours. And the resentment against her aunts grew faint in the light of her resentment against her lover's messenger, and this, in its turn, was outshone by her anger against her lover. He had played cricket. He had risked his life – on the very day whose evening should have crowned that life by giving her to his arms. She set her teeth. Then she yawned and shivered again. It was an English July, and very cold. And the slow minutes crept past. What a fool she had been! Why had she not made a fight for her liberty – for her right to see Harry if she chose to see him? The aunts would never have stood up against a well-planned, determined, disagreeable resistance. In the light of this doctor's talk the whole thing did seem cowardly, romantic, and, worst of all, insufferably young. Well – to-morrow everything should change; she would fight for her Love, not merely run away to him. But the promise? Well, Harry was Harry, and a promise was only a promise!

There were footsteps in the lane. The man was coming back to her. She rose.

"It's all right," he said. "Come."

In silence they walked down the lane. Suddenly he stopped.

"You'll thank me some day," he said. "Why should you throw yourself away on Harry? You're worth fifty of him. And I only wish I had time to explain this to you thoroughly, but I haven't!"

She, too, had stopped. Now she stamped her foot.

"Look here," she said, "I'm not going to promise anything at all. You needn't help me if you don't want to – but I take back that promise. Go! – do what you like! I mean to stick to Harry – and I'll write and tell him so to-night. So there!"

He clapped his hands very softly. "Bravo!" he said; "that's the right spirit. Plucky child! Any other girl would have broken the promise without a word to me. Harry's luckier even than I thought. I'll help you, little champion! Come on."

He helped her over the wall; carried the ladder to her window, and steadied it while she mounted it. When she had climbed over the window-ledge she turned and leaned out of the window, to see him slowly mounting the ladder. He threw his head back with a quick gesture that meant "I have something more to say – lean out!"

She leaned out. His face was on a level with hers.

"You've slept soundly all night – don't forget that – it's important," he whispered, "and – you needn't tell Harry – one-sided things are so trivial, but I can't help it. I have the passion for romance too!"

With that he caught her neck in the curve of his arm, and kissed her lightly but fervently.

"Good-bye!" he said; "thank you so much for a very pleasant evening!" He dropped from the ladder and was gone. She drew her curtain with angry suddenness. Then she lighted candles and looked at herself in the looking-glass. She thought she had never looked so pretty. And she was right. Then she went to bed, and slept like a tired baby.

Next morning the suburb was electrified by the discovery, made by the nursing aunt, that all the silver and jewels and valuables from the safe at the top of the stairs had vanished.


"The villains must have come through your room, child," she said to Harry's sweetheart; "the ladder proves that. Slept sound all night, did you? Well, that was a mercy! They might have murdered you in your bed if you'd happened to be awake. You ought to be humbly thankful when you think of what might have happened."

The girl did not think very much of what might have happened. What had happened gave her quite food enough for reflection. Especially when to her side of the night's adventures was added the tale of Harry's.

He had not played cricket, he had not hurt his knee, he had merely confided in his father's valet, and had given that unprincipled villain a five-pound note to be at the Cross Roads – in the orthodox style – with a cab for the flight, a post-chaise being, alas! out of date. Instead of doing this, the valet, with a confederate, had gagged and bound young Harry, and set him in a convenient corner against the local waterworks to await events.

"I never would have believed it of him," added Harry, in an agitated india-rubber-ball note, "he always seemed such a superior person, you'd have thought he was a gentleman if you'd met him in any other position."

"I should. I did," she said to herself. "And, oh, how frightfully clever! And the way he talked! And all the time he was only keeping me out of the way while they stole the silver and things. I wish he hadn't taken the ruby necklace: it does suit me so. And what nerve! He actually talked about the robberies in the neighbourhood. He must have done them all. Oh, what a pity! But he was a dear. And how awfully wicked he was, too – but I'll never tell Harry!"

She never has.

Curiously enough, her Burglar Valet Hero was not caught, though the police most intelligently traced his career, from his being sent down from Oxford to his last best burglary.

She was married to Harry, with the complete consent of everyone concerned, for Harry had money, and so had she, and there had never been the slightest need for an elopement, save in youth's perennial passion for romance. It was on her birthday that she received a registered postal packet. It had a good many queer postmarks on it, and the stamps were those of a South American republic. It was addressed to her by her new name, which was as good as new still. It came at breakfast-time, and it contained the ruby necklace, several gold rings, and a diamond brooch. All were the property of her late aunts. Also there was an india-rubber ball, and in it a letter.

"Here is a birthday present for you," it said. "Try to forgive me. Some temptations are absolutely irresistible. That one was. And it was worth it. It rounded off the whole thing so perfectly. That last indiscretion of mine nearly ruined everything. There was a policeman in the lane. I only escaped by the merest fluke. But even then it would have been worth it. At least, I should like you to believe that I think so."

"His last indiscretion," said Harry, who saw the note but not the india-rubber ball, "that means stealing your aunts' things, of course, unless it was dumping me down by the waterworks, but, of course, that wasn't the last one. But worth it? Why, he'd have had seven years if they'd caught him – worth it? He must have a passion for burglary."

She did not explain to Harry, because he would never have understood. But the burglar would have found it quite easy to understand that or anything. She was so shocked to find herself thinking this that she went over to Harry and kissed him with more affection even than usual.

"Yes, dear," he said, "I don't wonder you're pleased to get something back out of all those things. I quite understand."

"Yes, dear," said she. "I know. You always do!"

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