THE Damosel, succored at last, stood under her pavilion, which was a blossoming peach tree, sun all round her, gay summer green underfoot, the brown and the flash of the brook in her eyes. And in the open, eager and brave, the Knight battled with the Giant, who, all accounts agree, was as cruel as he was voracious.
Five minutes the combat lasted up and down the little meadow, the Knight flushed and breathless, — though one would swear he fought because he loved it, — the Giant smiling broadly through his growls. Five minutes the two wrestled, locked close, the Knight matching his quickness against his adversary’s strength, until at last — this always happened, you remember, in the old days — the Giant slipped and sprawled. The Knight put his foot on his foe’s neck and flourished his arms.
“ Where’s your sword ? ” called the Damosel from her place.
“ Over there by the brook. Hurry up and get it, Damosel.” Then, looking down at the Giant, “ Lie still, Major,” commanded the Knight.
Something like a spray of blossoms from the peach tree flashed lightly across the grass of the battlefield.
“ You run pretty good for a girl,” said the champion, as he reached out his hand for the sword, “ but ” —
“Behold Excalibur!” the Damosel said, not heeding. “ Now give the Dolorous Stroke.”
“ The what ? ” asked the Knight, rather blankly.
“ The Dolorous Stroke. Don’t you remember ? You must n’t poke him that way. And then the castle will all tumble down.”
“ Oh yes. Look out then ! ”
The Damosel shut her eyes. In the dark she saw the great brand flash all silver, heaved high above the champion’s head; she heard it hiss down ; and when the Giant yelped a little, as not understanding this part of the play, the Damosel looked up with a cry of delight.
It had been a splendid combat. They sat them down in the shade of the pavilion to rest.
“Now,” said the Knight, looking about him, “ I ’ll find a Saracen.”
“ That does n’t come yet,” the Damosel made answer, very quickly. She picked up a battered little volume from where it lay in the grass beside them, half opened it, made as if reading down a page, then closed it. “ The — the book says ” —
She waited one tremulous minute, not looking at her companion. The cheek turned toward him glowed warm as the heart of a peach blossom. She plaited tiny folds in the edge of her skirt. A minute long the silence lasted. Perhaps there was that in the summer sunlight, or in the south air, or in the warm scent of the earth, which laid an enchantment on her light and sweet.
“Well, what do we do, silly?” inquired the Knight.
“ We ’d better go back to King Arthur’s court, I suppose,” she answered after a moment, the smile dying from her eyes.
The Knight scrambled briskly to his feet. “ Go ahead,” he cried, “ I ’ll give you a start ’n’ beat you.”
A second time the pink and white whirled over the meadow, the Knight close behind ; and the Giant, recalled from hunting, barked wildly as he wallowed alongside. Here was something better than sitting under a tree. Then the whistle of the five o’clock express shrilled up the valley, and with the sound Excalibur became a stick again, and Camelot a pile of fence rails. It was the Knight who first perceived the change.
“ Got to go now,” he declared. One would guess he had waited the signal.
“ Don’t let’s,” urged the Damosel from her perch on Camelot’s highest tower. “ I don’t believe it’s time.”
The other moved away. “ Oh, come on, Jean. We can’t stay here all day.”
The Damosel looked from her champion back across the fair level field of Arthur’s realm, to where under the two pines dark Cornwall began, — that dear green land where were adventures for any knight to seek, for gallant ladies perils to undergo and delights to enjoy. She saw her blossoming pavilion, where enchantments were.
“ Do you really want to go home ? ” she asked doubtingly.
“ Joe said I might help milk if I got in early.”
The dull dwellers in the summer village never could rightly call this pair who, clad in mail or in samite, rode a foaming charger and a milk white palfrey at a hand gallop across the fields and through the woods seeking adventures. Knight and Damosel remained unguessed. Just as Arthur’s realm seemed a level pasture, so these two looked to be only a handsome twelve year old boy and girl, whose manners were as delightfully formal as their behavior entirely scandalous. For them the country people could find no other name but “ the Professor’s children.”
Perhaps though this was only for the sake of convenience. Perhaps the villagers knew in their hearts that by rights the titles of chivalry were the youngsters’, but were kept in some way from uttering them aloud. They always explained anyhow that they never could remember who the children really were. And, in a way, that was the case in the city too, where everybody called the boy and girl “ the Professor’s children ” even in the very shadow of the university buildings. It was the easiest name to give them, said the world, though the world knew that they did not belong to the Professor at all, — the villagers choosing it because they were at a loss to tell the true names of those whose life seemed in flashes that of the old times, the college folk hearing their little romance from this or that story-teller.
“ They ’re up to the darndest things,” said the country folk, bringing to mind some queer bit of mimic pageantry or deed of knight-errantry. “ Why ” —
“ He’s the old gentleman’s grandnephew,” the gossips explained, with circumstance. “ He was left when young Stevenson and the girl he married died down at Caracas somewhere. There was an epidemic or a revolution.”
“ And the little girl ? ”
“ Poor Avery’s.”
The conversation at the club would hang suspended at that point always. The elders sighed when they recalled the memory of the dead young scholar, and the juniors wondered soberly if ever their little names would be remembered as this one.
They were not the Professor’s children at all. They were fairy folk. They were legacies to him, much like the books he received from time to time, or — to value them at the Professor’s own rating, said some with a giggle — they were like the two sheets of early English manuscript which Dr. von Pentz willed him when at last Tübingen air blew out that flame itself had kindled.
The last of all to give the boy and girl their popular name was the Professor himself.
“ My charges are very well, thank you,” was his invariable answer to any one asking how the children did. He stressed his words lightly, but so as to admit of no misunderstanding. And for five years after they came to him he kept to his formula. He brought them nurses and tasteful clothes and a doctor when they had measles. He asked advice, considerably embarrassed, of this or that house-mother. In the twilight hours he tried to tell them about the dear great God who loved them, and of the bad little devil who sat on their right shoulders to whisper in their ears.
“ I will do my duty by them,” said the Professor, “ conscientiously.”
A dweller on a mountain top, he came down every day into the valley of childish things. From his proper place he could look east and west, and talk with the giants and the gods, seeing the world far below him, a friend of lightnings and of the wind from the sea. The swallows visited him up there and the curlews. Though he accomplished it every day, the descent from his throne was not easy. He scarcely knew how to speak the speech of the tiny creatures he found waiting for him below a little in awe. For five years he saw them across wide spaces. Talking with them as they sat round-eyed and very quiet side by side on the high-backed settle, he kept his hand on the book — any book — which would bear him back again, up, up, to the company of the Great Ones. And presently the difficult hour would tick itself out, the mellow voice quiet, the little listeners would look at each other and go back to where Major was waiting. His children ? Hardly that, but he took scrupulous care of them.
“ My duty,” said the Professor one day, as often before, “ is plain.”
There came to him then a light wind as he sat lonely and very high on his cold throne. The Professor listened carefully, for the breeze was from the quarter of inspiration. He knew it was apt to speak the truth, for all he could sometimes hardly understand its message.
“ It should n’t be your duty, sir.”
“ I am very sorry for them,”
“To a logical mind the next step is obvious.”
The Professor looked east and west into the cold clouds, then down to the greening earth. “ I think,” he murmured, getting on his feet, “ I will try anyway.”
“ They are waiting for you,” said the breeze, “ in the library. They are reading in the Morte d’Arthur.”
The Professor prepared to descend. “ I remember that I used to play Indians,” he admitted; “ but I should think that Sir Tor, for instance, or ” —
“ Sir Gareth,” the breeze laughed with him.
“ And she could play Lynette. I ’ll show them.”
“ You can be a horse perhaps, or a dwarf. One must be humble, sir. And you are going to be very happy.”
Not remote any longer, making his life part of theirs, — a very sweet relation, people said, — the Professor watched every move of his children, whether at play in Arthur’s fairy realm, or listening to the real world. He suffered, was rewarded, was very contented. There were sunny days on the old place in the country, — sheer romance. There were the earnest months from September till June when the hours for work and play were sounded from the college chimes. Jean went away to the famous school, but came back after a few months because all the money was needed for Jerry. The latter began to discover things, and to miss others, for all his cleverness, not guessing at their existence. The Professor continued to meet with the world’s greatest. If there entered changes into the life of the two wise men and the girl who knew only her duty, they were but as the slow alterations of nature from one beauty to another, — those of a tree or of the daylight, a little of autumn or of night that the leafage and the sun may be the fuller and more beautiful. If it came about after the years that the three followed no longer a single path, at least their ways were not so sundered but that they could call to one another as they walked on. It seemed to make no difference even when the Professor bade his boy further the work he would leave incomplete, for Jerry said he could do nothing unless he felt his guide’s hand in his, and the next instant turned in his chair to catch the friend’s smile he had learned to look for in Jean’s eyes.
“ A delightful family ! ” exclaimed the gossips, watching carefully through the years. “ The old man ’s really like a father to ’em.”
“ And the children brother and sister.”
“ Possibly,” said the gossips, “ but ” —
“ How do you mean ? Are they — does Jean ” —
“ Of course we don’t know anything about it,” rejoined the gossips quickly.
But that night, when the big new lifeplan was talked of, Jean — this quite by chance — was sitting outside the circle of light around the hearth, so that her brother could not see her face. And all through the two hours that followed she said no word, remaining all quiet in her place, though the men’s talk was of high things, and though more than once the old or the young would seem, as always, to include her as one who planned with them for all that was to come. They talked of the happy years in Germany, of the long days in the Bodleian or the Museum, of the thrill that comes with power, — all this as Jerry’s due, the heritage of him whom Barham called her brother. But when Jean came into the light her lip quivered and her eyes were dulled.
Neither of the men looked at her, however.
“ Ohne Hast, ohne Rast, boy,” the Professor was saying.
“ I’m going to try, sir.”
“ And we ’re going to help him, eh, Herzchen?” The Professor caught her by the arm as she passed. “ We ’ll stay behind, like the old man and weak woman we are, but we ’ll help. Shall we not ? Ah, I am so happy ! I feared he might choose some other path.”
“ You must be.” Then came a little pause. “ Will Jerry be going away very soon ? ”
“ All in good time, Liebling. There is much to be done. He’s only beginning. But go he shall some day, and he shall make himself great.”
“ Of course Jerry will be great! ” she cried, as though answering a challenge. Then she came close to the younger man. “ Good-by,” said Jean, kissing him.
“ Good-night,” he replied, thinking to answer her.
Theirs was a very sweet relation, Barham said again. It was pleasant to see the old man, spent with long battling, hand his weapons to the youngster and send him forward, pleasant to mark the skill and strength of the new champion. And Jean ? Well, college women are a good deal like soldiers’ wives after all. If they cannot fight themselves, at least they can hearten those stronger, or bind the wounds of their hurt heroes. It is not much to do, perhaps ; but then they are best far from the field. The battle is easier won so.
The working time passed. Once more the little meadow stretched out all green and gold under the sun, along its edge the brown brook sang cheerily, and under the peach tree sat the Damosel all alone. She was reading in a little book, but looked up quickly as a shadow fell across her page.
“ Always Malory ! ” cried the voice of the Knight. “ I never saw such a girl! ”
“ You used to like him, too.”
“ I do now. All those romances of chivalry. They ’re very interesting.”
“ We used to act him out, don’t you remember ? ” the Damosel went on.
“ Indeed I do. You were fine at all those games.”
“ So were you. I remember.”
“ They’ve given me the traveling fellowship, Jean.”
The Damosel did not answer at once. Watching her, one would say she had not heard, she was looking so far away. But her mouth pinched a little at the corners.
“ Yes, we’ve won out, Jean. Three years sure wherever I want abroad. And it’s all your doing, Jean, — yours and the Governor’s. If it had n’t been that you and he helped so much and told me how ” —
“Three years? ” she asked swiftly.
“Yes. And” —
“ Oh, Jerry, I am glad you’ve won it. Jerry, did I really help you any ? ”
“ Of course you did. It’s my start in life, Jean. And I do thank you for it.”
“ It’s for three whole years ? ”
“ At least. More if I behave.”
“ You must try to be good, then.” She laughed up at him hardily.
The boy laughed too, and turned away; but stopped for a moment and looked up and down the length of the meadow.
“ A fine old playground, was n’t it, Jean ? Do you remember the names we used to call things ? I don’t believe you do.”
The Damosel bent her head. Her fingers were knit tight.
“ What was the peach tree then ? ” he asked lightly.
It was a breathing space before she replied. Then —
“ Astolat,” said the Damosel, very low.
Emerson Gifford Taylor.