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   Chapter 2 THE MAN

White Fire By John Oxenham Characters: 26713

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Ten years later Miss Jean Arnot was visiting her aunts in Greenock again. Not but what she had been there many times in between, but this is the only occasion of which we need take note.

There had been many changes in these ten years.

For one thing, Jean's father was dead, and she was a very wealthy young woman. In many respects she was still very like the little Jean of earlier times. Her face was still the sweet, long oval of her childhood, though the features were more pronounced and matured. But the chief impression it left upon you was still that of eager questioning, a great longing to know, tempered somewhat by years and freedom from all material care. "Want-to-know" was getting on in years-twenty-three, a great age-but there were still mysteries of life which she had not solved, wherein she found matter for surprise at times.

But life ran very smoothly and pleasantly with her. She went out a little, and entertained a little in return, travelled much, and was not wanting in good deeds and charity. Her income was about ten times as large as was really good for her, and if she gave munificently she never missed what she gave, so that the recipients were the sole beneficiaries of her giving.

She had hosts of friends, phalanxes of admirers; could have had hosts of aspirants to a still closer relationship, but so far would have none of them. She was enjoying herself exceedingly, and fulfilling in their entirety the aspirations of her childhood. She was a lady, she was rich, and she was doing as she liked-and she had not touched a needle since she came into her kingdom.

That was the natural rebound, for Aunt Jannet Harvey, a famous needlewoman and housewife herself, had rigorously insisted-so long as she was in power-on her niece learning the minor as well as the major accomplishments of a gentlewoman, such as had obtained during her own long apprenticeship to that high estate. And that is how it came to pass that Miss Jean Arnot, wealthy heiress and society lady, really knew a very great deal more about some things than you would have imagined from the casual sight of her at dance or opera.

The moment she was free, and a woman of herself, she relegated the "hijjus" things to what she considered their proper place in the economy of her life, and, later, dug them up out of their dusty corners gratefully, and Aunt Jannet was justified.

Aunt Harvey-Aunt Jannet Harvey, to distinguish her from Aunt Lisbeth Harvey-had lived with them and mothered her since her own mother died, when she was a very small child indeed. Aunt Jannet was really her mother's aunt, early widowed and childless, a wise and placid old lady-old, that is, in the eyes of effervescent three-and-twenty-with somewhat rigid ideas of right and wrong, toning slowly, by course of time and easy circumstance, into a tolerant acceptance of things as they came. Her husband had been a professor in Edinburgh, and the society he and she had enjoyed in the modern Athens, thirty years before, was her standard of what society ought to be. She was, however, each year becoming more reconciled to the disparities of the lighter age with which John Arnot's great success in life had forced her into contact. And Jean had been to her as her own daughter would have been, if she had had one, since the day she first took charge of her and began to endeavour to answer some of her questions, and quietly to shelve others for more suitable occasion of discussion. For little Jean Want-to-know had a most active brain and an insatiable curiosity, and never hesitated to ask for fullest details of anything she did not understand; and the wonderings and questionings of such a child have no bounds at times, and are almost impossible of control, either from the inside or the outside.

Jean made a point of spending a part of each year in Scotland, wherever else she and Aunt Jannet might wander at other times. On such occasions Aunt Jannet went to Edinburgh and lived again in the past, but in a yearly narrowing circle, so far as the personal element was concerned, and Jean went to Greenock and queened it over her aunts there.

She was a great enjoyment, a continuous ripple of excitement, to their ordered household; and since they no longer sat upon her and answered her erstwhile inconvenient questions by gentle snubs and nicknames, the times she spent with them were times of great enjoyment to her also.

She rather patronised them, of course, which was perhaps inevitable; for she lived twenty to their one, and, moreover, possessed the means to do it and a will that carried all before it.

She insisted, for instance, on paying for her board and lodging, and on a tariff of her own fixing, whenever she came to stay with them, and flatly declined to come on any other condition. They were independent-minded, and declined to be dictated to in such a matter by a small thing whom they had known in frocks with skirts only thirteen inches long. She promptly scandalised them by going to the Tontine and putting up there. Then they gave way, and she had them. After that she was capable of anything, and they submitted to all her whims, which were always pretty and thoughtful ones, and-she assured them, just as they had been wont to assure her in the days of the thirteen-inch frocks-entirely for their own good and happiness. She salved the cicatrice of the Tontine wound by carrying them all off en masse to the Riviera for a month; and Aunt Jean, after whom she was named, gravely suggested the advisability of frequently opposing her ideas, since the outcome was so eminently agreeable.

Then she was always making them presents, at which their independency kicked, but in which, nevertheless, they could not but own to enjoyment.

But the girl was right, after all. She had much too much, and they had only enough, and that only with clever handling; and they would no more have accepted bald gifts of money than they would have burned down their house and claimed double the value of the furniture.

Jean and her visits, and their visits to her, and with her to hitherto unattainable places, were the high lights of their lives. They loved her dearly, rejoiced in her greatly, were proud of her, and wondered much when it would all come to an end in the centering of her thoughts and affections on one sole and-they fervently hoped, but were not without misgivings, because of her wealth and her impulsiveness-worthy man.

They made ingenuous little attempts at sounding her on that subject, but she was much too clever for them, and skilfully eluded all approaches which might tend, even remotely, to any self-revelations. That there were no revelations to make only added piquancy to the game, from her point of view, since it kept the aunts in a state of perpetual mystification, and held no pitfalls.

Among many other changes she had seen in the last ten years, old Mr. MacTavish had retired long ago, and a younger man occupied his pulpit, and, strange to say, gave satisfaction in it.

The Rev. Archibald Fastnet was so exactly the opposite of his predecessor that it might have seemed impossible that where the one had pleased the other should do so. Mr. Fastnet was young, and he believed in-as he put it-making things jump. And he made both things and people jump at times. He was full of enthusiasms which were generally at white heat and-which is more unusual-remained so. The older generation said he kept them on the perpetual "kee-vee" to see what he would do next; the younger people enjoyed him and the service he exacted from them. And on Sundays they all, old and young, always turned out both morning and evening, since it invariably came to pass that, if they missed a service, something happened which made them feel out of the running for the whole of the following week. When Jean Arnot was at Greenock she did as good Greenockians do, and went to church twice every Sunday and one evening in the week as well.

The Rev. Archibald never failed to furnish her with a certain amount of quiet amusement, and, apart from other feelings, she always went in expectation and was rarely disappointed.

On this particular Sunday morning Mr. Fastnet had prepared a little surprise for his people, which turned out, as his arrangements generally did, a perfect success. It also afforded Jean Arnot the surprise of her life, and she never forgot it.

You can forget many things in ten full years. If, for instance, you yourself had met a person informally ten years ago, and spent half an hour with him, just incidentally hearing his name, it is doubtful if you would recall him very distinctly if he presented himself suddenly before you after the ten years had passed.

Jean felt a rustle of surprise among her aunts in the pew, and she saw that two men passed up into the pulpit where the Rev. Archibald lorded it alone as a rule. The voluntary ceased, and he stood up, beaming all over, as usual when he had something unusually delectable up his sleeve for them.

"Instead of speaking to you myself this morning," he said, "I have asked our friend Mr. Blair to say a few words to us. We all take a fatherly and motherly, and I may say a sisterly and brotherly, interest in Mr. Blair. Perhaps some of us regret that none of us has taken a still nearer and dearer-than-all-otherly interest in him"-at which Fastneticism a smile rippled round. "Our young friend leaves this week to begin his work in the South Seas, where, as you know, he is about to join that valiant bearer of light into outer darkness, John Gerson, in his noble work. You will, I know, appreciate with me this chance-it may be the last chance-of hearing our young standard-bearer's voice before he passes beyond the fringes of the night."

Then he came down, and took his seat in a front pew and enjoyed a preacher's holiday.

And, after a pause, and very quietly, young Blair rose in the pulpit and gave out the hymn.

So far Jean Arnot had been only interested and amused. But the sound of his voice, clear and round and full as an organ tone, made her jump with surprise. He had spoken quite naturally, but there was a ring in it that told of immense possibilities behind, and there was something in it that plucked at some hidden chord of Jean's memory and set it humming as a harp-string responds to a bugle note.

She stared at him eagerly. Had she ever by any possibility met him before? She could hardly have forgotten it if she had, she thought. For he was a young man of most striking appearance. Tall, square-shouldered and broad-chested-a commanding figure in truth. It occurred to others besides Jean that if the natives needed more forcible arguments than words for their conversion, here was a likely man for the work. Light-haired and clean-shaven, his face seemed to glow with an inner radiance-a masterful face, and grave. His eyes were wonderfully magnetic; fearless and steadfast, they made you jump as their glance crossed your own. Jean had just jumped, so she knew.

Now who was this? Surely she had met him before somewhere.

Remember it was ten years since she had seen him, and then only for half an hour, and under very different conditions, and she had never heard his name since.

She ordered her brain, or her heart, or whichever of her inner servants it was that held the key, to go find it, and sat gazing at him to give them such light as that might afford. But the clue evaded her till he was near the end of his quiet, forceful talk.

He had told them of his hopes, and the plans he and Gerson hoped to carry out-"The grandest man I have ever met, a most noble Christian gentleman," he said, in a burst of enthusiasm. He asked them for their help, their prayers, their sympathetic remembrance, their money-since the work had to be maintained from the outside, and even missionaries must live.

He spoke very simply, with no ornate periods or calculated sentences; but his voice was like a trumpet, and his eyes were like stars, and his words were illuminating and full of power, and now and again were flung out white hot from the glowing heart within. Though he spoke for the most part so restrainedly, now and again the brake would slip, and the sweet, white fire of a great, enthusiastic soul would flame through.

Perhaps he was a trifle over-confident of success-that is one of youth's glories and pitfalls; but there was no doubt that his whole heart was in his work-that here, for once at all events, a square man had found his own square hole.

"It was always the great hope and desire of my boyhood to go out into these unknown lands," he was saying. "Though perhaps at that time the inducement was chiefly the unknown, and the inhabitants, I fear, appealed to me more as possible hindrances than inducements. When I tended my uncle's cattle on the hillsides of the Cut--"

And then she knew him, and she sat up with a jerk, and stared at him as though she had only that moment awakened to the fact that he was speaking.

And such, to some extent, was the fact. She had been interested and puzzled. Now, in a moment, it was a new man she was looking at and listening to-a new man, but an old friend. And she was sitting on one piece of rock eating cookies, and he was sitting on another munching oatcake and cheese, and he was saying, "I'm

going to be an explorer."

It was very wonderful-though she remembered that she had recognised him, even then, as a boy of different texture from most other boys. And so he had got what he wanted-the greatest prize a man may win, she supposed: to desire vehemently a certain lofty course in life, and to attain to it.

And she? Yes, she remembered. She was going to be rich, and a lady, and do as she liked. Truly hers was but a poor attainment compared with his.

She did not hear much more of what he said, though she was gazing fixedly at him all the time. Her mind was away back to the hillside by the Cut, and it was only when they stood up to sing the last hymn that mind and body came together again.

Mr. Blair came down to shake hands with his many friends, and most of the people went forward for that purpose, Jean's aunts among them, and she with them; and as they sat at the back they were among the last to reach him.

She was shaking hands with him, and the straight blue eyes looking into her own set her heart jumping.

"Ah!" said the Rev. Archibald, all one vast beam of satisfaction at the general enjoyment of his little surprise. "Now we have you, Blair. This lady, at all events, you can't claim as an old friend, though I am quite sure she is a well-wisher."

Blair still held her hand and looked steadfastly into her eyes.

"This is--" began Mr. Fastnet, and was stopped abruptly by a peremptory gesture of Miss Arnot's other hand.

"Yes-I think so," said the young man, breaking suddenly into a smile of enjoyable reminiscence, "Miss-Jean-Arnot? Or possibly now Mrs.--?"

"Jean Arnot is still good enough for me, Mr. Blair," she said brightly. "How wonderful that you should remember me all these years!"

"Why more wonderful than that you should have recognised me, Miss Arnot? We are both a good deal changed since last we met."

"Why, what's all this?" said the Rev. Archibald jovially. "I had no idea you knew Miss Arnot, Blair."

"We met once, ten years ago, up on the Cut-and had lunch together," said Blair, with a smile. "I was keeping Highland cattle from goring little girls, and Miss Arnot was exploring. We have both travelled far since then."

"You much the farthest," she said quietly, "and going still farther. I congratulate you very heartily. It is what you desired then. Do you remember telling me?"

"Yes. I am very grateful."

Blair's thoughts were full of her. As they went home he quietly led Fastnet on to speak about her, and offered him the best inducement to plentiful speech in the appreciation with which he listened.

Fastnet enlarged upon her great wealth and generosity, her cleverness and culture, her independence of thought and deed, and incidentally mentioned that he had seen or heard some rumour of her possible marriage with Lord Charles Castlemaine, second son of the Duke of Munster, but he could not say what truth there was in it.

As a matter of fact, Jean Arnot would as soon have thought of marrying the ticket-collector at Monument Station as Lord Charles Castlemaine. The gentleman with the snips at Monument Station is doubtless a most worthy individual, but I know absolutely nothing whatever about him. Jean Arnot knew exactly as much, and one does not, as a rule, marry a man one knows absolutely nothing about, nor-a man about whom one knows considerably more than is to his credit. Jean Arnot knew a good deal about Charles Castlemaine, and there was not the slightest danger of her marrying him.

"Is he a good sort?" asked Blair.

"Much what dukes' younger sons mostly are, I imagine. The elder brother is not strong, so if it comes off you may perhaps count among your well-wishers a duchess sooner or later."

"Miss Arnot's good wishes would weigh more with me than those of all the duchesses in the land," said Blair quietly. "There is something very taking in her face-it is so bright and eager." Then he laughed at his thoughts. "I remember, that day up on the Cut, I quite accidentally hit upon a nickname they used to her at home-Miss Inquisitive-and she flared up at me like a rip-rap. She was always wanting to know, I believe."

"She is still," said Fastnet, laughing, "though she must have learned a good deal in all these years. She told me once that she was born curious, and that she was especially curious to know all about what came after this life. She said she thought the thought that she was going to solve that greatest of all puzzles would take away all fear of death when the time came. That was just after I came here. She must have been about fifteen then."

Blair's time was very short. He left that afternoon for Edinburgh to spend his last two days with his old friends, Mr. and Mrs. MacTavish. He was to join Mr. Gerson in London on Wednesday and sail on Thursday.

Mr. MacTavish had been a father to him from the time he walked along the Cut-the very day after little Jean Arnot's prattle had set him on the boy's track-and found him, prostrate on the flat stone, still wrestling with Prop. 47.

He had been just there himself when a small boy, struggling against the retarding clay of a narrow agricultural home. He knew the sturdy independence that would be in the boy; and, in his own full knowledge, went to work warily. The slightest hint of charity, and the shy, proud one would be off.

So he never mentioned Jean, met the boy on his own ground as a perfectly new acquaintance, gradually won his confidence and his heart, guided, led, and finally enabled him by his own exertions to obtain a bursary and proceed to college. With that, nothing could keep him back. His heart was in it, his aims were high, and his course was a triumphal progress. He had learned, as a boy, that greatest of lessons-how to learn. The rough experiences of his boyhood on the hillside had given him splendid health and a body that never tired. He was tough as wire, and, among other things, was known at college for that passion for personal cleanliness which, in its earlier days, had helped to introduce him to Jean Arnot on the hillside. He had, quite early-as soon, indeed, as he perceived the possibility of attaining to it-fixed on the mission-field as offering what his soul yearned for. Perhaps at first it was the unknown that drew him. No matter. By degrees the known outrivalled the unknown, the greater absorbed the less, and his heart was fixed on the highest of all high work.

In these ten years he had learned mightily. Head, heart, and hand had toiled incessantly, and never felt it toil, since it was only the natural satisfaction of a great heart-craving. Then he had come across Gerson, home on leave for the first time in twenty years. Their hearts and eyes struck sparks the first time they met.

"That is a man!" said Gerson, "and I'll have him if I can get him."

"That is a saint and a hero!" said Blair. "I'm his man if he'll have me."

After that no power on earth could have kept them apart, and on Thursday they were to sail together for the outer fringes. Gerson was busily bidding his friends goodbye.

"You may hear of me from time to time. You'll never see me again-this side the veil at all events. We'll hope to meet on the other side," he said heartily, and grudged every day that lay between him and his work.

Blair, in telling Mr. and Mrs. MacTavish of his reception at the Greenock church, incidentally mentioned Miss Arnot, but doubted evidently whether they would know anything of her.

But the old man laughed gently, and said, in his quiet, old-fashioned, precise way, which was the very antithesis of the Rev. Archibald's jovial utterances: "I will explain to you now, my dear boy, what at the time I deemed wisest to treasure within the repository of my own heart. It was from Miss Jean Arnot that I first heard about you. It was in consequence of her delighted account of her meeting with you, and the Euclid and the Latin grammar, that I sought you out on the hillside and tendered you the helping hand of which you have made such excellent use."

"It was Miss Arnot?" said the young man in amazement.

"Truly, yes! Though I do not for a moment suppose she knows anything whatever about it. I certainly never told her, and I never told you, because I had been a studious herd-laddie myself, and I knew what shy and hypersensitive colts they are, and the delicacy necessary to their proper handling."

"I thank you for telling me now, sir. It is as I would have it."

"I believe it would please her to know what you told me, sir," Blair broke out abruptly a little later on, and the old gentleman smiled at the evidence of the track of his thoughts.

"I will write and tell her, if you like, if you really think the knowledge would afford her any gratification."

"I think it would, sir."

And so Jean Arnot received two notes which gave her very deep pleasure. And the shorter one of the two said simply:-

"You will have learned by this time, from my dear old friend and second father, what I myself only learned three days ago-that it was your unconscious hand that set my unconscious feet on the ladder. I rejoice to know that it was so. The knowledge of it would be an additional spur, if any spur were needed. Time may come, however, when the remembrance of your kindness and all it has done for me, unconscious though it was, may nerve me for some critical passage in the life in front, for we are going among perilous peoples. It is not likely we shall ever meet again, but, having learned how this matter stood, I could not leave home without tendering you my most grateful and hearty thanks.

"That your life may be a wide, and bright, and beautiful, and happy one will be the prayer of

"Yours faithfully,

"KENNETH BLAIR."

"He is a good man," said Jean thoughtfully, as she folded the letter and put it carefully into a special corner of her desk, and then immediately took it out again and re-read it. "May God go with him also!"

She read in the papers next day of his sailing in company with John Gerson, the prophet of the Dark Islands, and was surprised to discover in herself a curious feeling of loss, as though something had gone out of her life. Which, considering all the circumstances of the case, was distinctly odd, you know.

She had only met him twice in her life; for ten years she had hardly given him a thought; and yet his going left a little blank in a life which was quite unaccustomed to anything of the kind.

But the sudden sight of him in all his quiet strength of attainment, and the knowledge of what it all meant to him, together with this new understanding of how it had all come about, and of the share she herself had unconsciously had in the making of him-well, perhaps after all it was not so odd. For she had felt a sudden glow of participation in his triumph, a sudden sense of increase such as no procurement of her wealth had ever brought her-and now it was as suddenly gone, and a blank remained.

She caught herself thinking of him oftener than she had ever thought of any man before, and she said to herself in surprise-

"Goodness gracious me! why does that herd-laddie stick in my brain so?"

A quite dispassionate dissector of the emotions and their origins might have come to the conclusion that it was, after all, only a case of the heart performing its natural function of feeding the brain. For the heart is the life.

She laughed at herself; but the herd-laddie remained in her thoughts, and one day, before she went south, she actually found herself sitting on that very same piece of rock where she had sat ten years before, and in imagination he sat on the adjacent rock, munching his thick oatcake and broken pieces of cheese.

"What a greedy little pig I was!" she said to herself, as she sat leaning forward with her chin in her hand. "But I don't believe he'd have taken a bite from me, however much I'd wanted him to."

She looked at the slab where the windmill had been, and at the pool where the gentleman had washed. He looked as if he had been strenuously washing ever since. What a radiant face he had! It did not come from much washing, she knew; but somehow the two things linked themselves in her mind. It was the white fire inside that lit up the outside: a real man-a man to trust infinitely-a man to--

She sat looking out over the mighty panorama of hills and lochs and mountains opposite-"Gare Loch, Loch Goil, Loch Long, Ben Lomond, Ben Ihme, The Cobbler, Holy Loch." She knew most of them still. How the sight of them all brought him back to her! And, in all probability, he would never see them again. "We are going among perilous peoples."

Well! he had done very wonderfully; he was fulfilling the highest aspirations of his boyish heart.

And she? She was a lady, and very rich, as she had said she would be. And she remembered the touch of scorn with which the herd-laddie had said, "Yes, that's about all you can be, I suppose."

Close behind her the swift brown waters of the Cut hurried headlong to the town-one long, unceasing blessing. "Men may come and men may go, but we go on for ever," sang the bubbling waters against the rough rock walls of their narrow way.

"Surely I am one of the most useless of God's creatures," said Jean Arnot, as she wandered slowly back towards the paper-mill and home.

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