THE QUEST

“My voice shall with thy future visions blend,
And reach into thy heart, when mine is cold,
A token and a tone….” _Childe Harold_.

Next day Jane-Anne was allowed to sit in the garden under the
apple-tree: a queer little hunched-up figure in the tight stuff-dress
and a shawl. She also wore the pie-dish, for Mrs. Dew was one of those
people who considered it almost disreputable to be out of doors
bare-headed.

She sat in a basket-chair and on her knees lay her most recent prize,
“Home Influence,” a fat handsome volume bound in purple cloth with gilt
edges. For lessons, Jane-Anne had won every prize open to her at the
asylum. Although she had only been there a year, and that year
constantly broken by long bouts of illness, she had gained seven books.
These, which included a Bible, a prayer-book, and church hymnal, with
one other comprised her whole library. The prizes were all of a moral
and edifying character, and Jane-Anne had read them over and over again
hungrily, with the passionate interest and enthusiasm which she brought
to everything outside her actual daily duties. And although she
whole-heartedly admired them she was yet subconsciously critical and
unsatisfied. She regarded her prizes with the greatest respect.
Familiarity had, so far, bred no contempt for them in her mind, but all
the time she felt that there was something lacking. Although they were
the only books she possessed, they were not the only ones she had read.
In the previous autumn, her mother’s mistress, Lady Dursley, had
commanded her aunt to take the child for a change to their place in
Gloucestershire, accompanying the order with a liberal cheque for
travelling expenses. The family was in Scotland and most of the big
house shut up, and nearly all the servants were making holiday, except
the housekeeper, an old friend of Mrs. Dew, and one elderly
kitchen-maid. But the great library was open, for a young man had been
sent down to catalogue the books. He was an intelligent young man and
took a fancy to Jane-Anne and had her with him a great deal. He found
her books he thought good for her, and on departure presented her with
the little green-covered “Children’s Treasury,” compiled by Palgrave.

In this Jane-Anne read constantly and carefully, not because she was
particularly attracted by the poems, though some of them she loved and
learned by heart, but because whenever she came across any poetry she
searched through it eagerly in the hope of finding a poem her father
used to repeat to her. She had read and re-read the little green book
unceasingly, but nowhere could she find her poem.

Her father died before she was five years old, but Jane-Anne’s
recollection of him was curiously vivid, and at this very moment her
mind strove to materialise a memory elusive in some ways as a puff of
smoke, sharp and defined in others as a tongue of leaping flame against
a midnight sky.

The moment Mrs. Dew had safely disappeared into the house the child
dragged off the pie-dish and cast it violently on the grass at her feet.
Then she lay back in her chair, her eyes dreamy and pensive, though ever
and again she knit her black eyebrows in her effort to remember.

Her thin hands lay folded above the unopened volume on her knees and she
sat very still.

It was warm and pleasant in Mr. Wycherly’s garden; a thrush sang in the
boughs above her head, and every now and then pink and white petals
dropped softly upon her hair. A flutter of wind blew over a great clump
of narcissus bearing their perfume on its wings, and the heavy scent was
memory-laden for Jane-Anne.

She saw a long, low-ceiled, lamp-lit room with a window at either end
and all the furniture ranged round the walls that a free path might be
open for the restless pacing up and down of one who was never too busy
or too absorbed to be at the beck and call of an often fretful little
girl. As in a vision she beheld that man “with all his keen worn look
and Grecian grace” tramping to and fro and holding in his arms a tired,
fidgetty child who could not sleep.

Backwards and forwards he went, and with the soothing movement was the
sound of words sorrowful and majestic, musical in their rhythmic swing
and balance: words that poor Jane-Anne could never remember though she
felt that they were written indelibly on mind and heart but covered,
covered deeply with layer upon layer of fugitive things of little worth.
Some day, she was convinced, she would find that poetry and with it a
thousand things about her father that she had forgotten. He often wore
a narcissus in his button-hole, and as her head lay on his shoulder the
crushed flower gave forth a double fragrance.

It was this familiar scent, strong in the warm old Oxford garden, that
seemed to compass her about in an atmosphere of memories, memories of a
time when she, too, was always warm, cared about, schemed for, enwheel’d
around with love on every hand.

The lines between the black eyebrows were smoothed out as by a tender
hand. The unremembered poem ceased to worry her. She would find it
some day. Meanwhile, she was sure her daddy knew she loved him. There
was something he had told her to remember and she had forgotten, but
only for a little while. It would come back, she was sure it would come
back. Here, in this house, where there were so many books, perhaps she
would find it.

She saw again her beautiful, gentle mother, so calm always and patient.
Mrs. Dew was careful to impress upon Jane-Anne that she in no way
resembled her mother, and the child never resented this reproach, for
had not that very mother rejoiced in her likeness to her father? “My
little Maid of Athens,” had been her mother’s name for Jane-Anne, and
Jane-Anne treasured it in her mind. She knew that her worthy aunt had
never either liked or approved of her father, and this only made her
more passionately loyal to his memory. She pondered these things in her
heart, puzzled and pained sometimes, but never daunted in her pride. It
was from no mean country that her father had come, she was sure of that.
She knew little enough of Greece, nothing of its great history, but
chance phrases that she had heard in infancy remained in her mind. She
was sure that there was something to know, something worth knowing, and
that she would know it some day.

She never spoke of her parents to her companions at the asylum; and
although Mrs. Dew would often talk fondly and proudly of her mother and
Jane-Anne loved her for it, her aunt’s silence with regard to the father
she adored filled the child with a resentment none the less bitter that
it never found expression. Jane-Anne was perfectly aware of her hostile
attitude, although Mrs. Dew was careful never to say one word in
disparagement of a man she had been quite unable to understand; whom she
had heartily disliked.

“I wonder why I’m thinking so much of my daddie since I came here?”
Jane-Anne thought to herself. “I suppose it’s because I’m happier.”

Presently, over the grass towards her came Montagu, very long in the leg
and short in the sleeve. Edmund was out zestfully finding his way about
Oxford in his recently discovered fashion.

Montagu sat down on the grass at Jane-Anne’s feet and looked up at her,
smiling broadly, but never a word said he till he espied the book in her
lap.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“One of my prizes, sir,” Jane-Anne answered primly.

“Is it decent?”

“It’s most interesting.”

“Can I look at it?”

The book changed hands and Montagu began to read. He turned the pages
very fast, to the wonderment of Jane-Anne, who had never seen people
read after this fashion.

He was lying face-downwards on the grass in front of her, and she
watched his eyes as they swept the page from top to bottom in,
apparently, one glance. She liked his thin brown face with the large
kind eyes and firm capable mouth that was always shut when he wasn’t
talking, but just at that moment she thought that his expression was
less pleasant than usual, that there was something scornful and almost
sinister about his mouth, and yet she was sure that in some queer way he
was amused. Why?

Jane-Anne had never found anything in the least amusing in the work in
question; interesting, certainly; “touching” (the lady who gave them
Sunday lessons at the asylum was fond of the word “touching”)
frequently; but humorous never. The authorities who chose books for
female orphans at the Bainbridge did not consider the cultivation of a
sense of humour in any way a necessary part of the training.

Presently Montagu began to dip into the book here and there, still
reading with that lightning-like rapidity that so astonished Jane-Anne.

In five minutes he shut it with a slam and looked up at her and laughed.

“What awful rot,” he remarked genially, as though certain of sympathy.

Jane-Anne gazed at him in consternation. “Rot?” she faltered.

“Fearful squish; you don’t mean to say you really like it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, so offended that she quite
forgot the respectful “sir.”

“It’s so stilted and bombastic and unnatural. The style”—here Montagu
unconsciously gave a perfect imitation of his house master’s manner—”is
so cheap and meretricious.”

“I don’t understand about style in books,” said Jane-Anne, still much
umbraged. “D’you mean the binding?”

“Good gracious, no. I mean the way it’s written. Listen to this”—and
Montagu opened the book haphazard and read the following extract
aloud:—”’He had been minister of a favourite church in one of the
southern towns, and master of an establishment for youths of high rank,
in both which capacities he had given universal satisfaction. The
reprehensible conduct of some of his pupils, carried on at first so
secretly as to elude his knowledge, at length became so notorious as to
demand examination. He had at first refused all credence, but when
proved by the confused replies of all, and half-confession of some, he
briefly and emphatically laid before them the enormity of their conduct,
and declared, that as confidence was entirely broken between them, he
would resign the honour of their education, refusing to admit them any
longer as members of his establishment.’ There!” Montagu exclaimed,
“could you have anything worse?”

“I think it’s all said very properly and grandly,” Jane-Anne protested.
“I don’t see what’s the matter with it at all.”

Montagu rolled over on the grass and sat up. “It’s the grandness that’s
so detestable.”

“It’s my best prize,” she said indignantly.

“I’m sorry,” said Montagu, seeing that she was really hurt, “but you ask
Guardie about that sort of writing.”

“It’s printed,” snapped Jane-Anne.

Montagu gazed at her in hopeless bewilderment. He had never before
argued with a girl.

Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes filled with angry tears. She
clenched her thin little hands and bit her lips to keep from bursting
into sobs.

“I say,” Montagu exclaimed, with real contrition, “why do you mind?
What does it matter what I think?”

“If you,” Jane-Anne gasped, “had as few books as me, and loved them
every one dearly, and then someone came along and abused them and called
them ’rot’ and ’merry something’ and ’squish,’ _you_ wouldn’t like it.”

This time the big tears escaped, rolled over and down her cheeks,
dropping with a splash on to the plaid shawl covering her knees.

And at this critical moment Mr. Wycherly came out of the house and
across the grass towards them. He had seen the children from his study
window, and remembering that the boys went back to school next day,
decided to seek their society under the pleasant shade of the
apple-tree.

Montagu stalked over to the tool house to fetch a chair for his guardian
and arrived with it as Mr. Wycherly reached the apple-tree. Jane-Anne
had lost her handkerchief, the tears were shining on her cheeks, and she
gave a most unmistakable sniff just as Mr. Wycherly reached them. But
she stood up and curtsied with downcast eyes and burning cheeks, and at
the same moment Montagu came back bearing a chair for his guardian.

“What is the matter?” asked Mr. Wycherly.

Jane-Anne continued to stand, and lifted her tear-washed eyes to his
face. Had it been stern or severe she could never have answered a word;
as it was, she said quite simply: “He didn’t like my prize and I
minded.”

Mr. Wycherly sat down in the chair Montagu had brought and looked from
the pained and indignant Jane-Anne to the evidently puzzled and
distressed Montagu.

“Suppose we all sit down and try to come to a better understanding,” he
said.

Jane-Anne sank heavily into her chair. She was still weak, and even the
little effort to greet Mr. Wycherly with due respect caused her legs to
quake and her heart to beat thunderously in her ears.

She leant her head against the back of the chair and looked so white
that for a moment Mr. Wycherly thought she was about to faint. But she
did nothing of the kind.

Instead, she said in a voice that wholly belied her exhausted
appearance: “Have you read ’Home Influence,’ sir?”

“I don’t think so,” said Mr. Wycherly; “is that the name of the book
under discussion?”

Jane-Anne held it out towards him; he took it from her carefully, placed
his eye-glasses on his nose, opened it haphazard, and began to read.

Precisely the same thing happened as with Montagu. His eyes sought a
page and he turned it. This extraordinary way of reading was not
peculiar to Montagu, that was evident. But in Mr. Wycherly’s face
neither scorn nor amusement was portrayed, only a polite interest.

In three minutes Montagu said, “Well?”

Mr. Wycherly closed the book. “I cannot,” he said, “be expected to
express an opinion after so cursory a glance at the contents. Montagu,
go and ask Mrs. Dew for a glass of milk; this child looks faint; bring
some biscuits, too.”

Montagu sped away, and he turned to Jane-Anne.

“You mustn’t mind him,” he said kindly. “Clever Winchester boys are
always intolerant—while they are boys. Montagu reads a great deal more
than he can digest, and people with indigestion are proverbially
cantankerous.”

Jane-Anne didn’t understand what he meant in the very least, but she
felt immediately and immensely comforted. So much so, that she was
impelled to speak to Mr. Wycherly of her thoughts when she first came
out.

“Please, sir,” she said, calmly dismissing the merits or demerits of
“Home Influence” that seemed so vital a moment ago. “Do you know a
piece of poetry about mountains?”

“A great deal of poetry has been written about mountains,” Mr. Wycherly
replied cautiously.

“It’s a piece of poetry I want to find,” said Jane-Anne, “that I heard
many times long ago, and I can’t remember anything about it except that
there was mountains. I thought perhaps you’d know it.”

Here Montagu appeared with a glass of milk and some biscuits. The milk
had slopped over on to the biscuits “in some unaccountable way,” he
explained; but their sopped condition did not spoil them for Jane-Anne,
who munched quite happily and smiled her broad ecstatic smile at him to
show that she had forgiven his cruel remarks about “Home Influence.”

Presently the doctor came to see her, and Mrs. Dew fetched her in to be
sounded.

The moment she had gone Montagu turned upon his guardian, demanding
sternly: “Well, isn’t it hopeless squish?”

“It is her prize,” said Mr. Wycherly gently.

“Why, that’s just what she said,” Montagu exclaimed in astonishment at
his usually logical guardian taking this line.

“You will find,” said Mr. Wycherly, “as you go through life that it is
never safe to abuse things violently before you have realised your
hearer’s point of view. You may offend deeply.”

“You’d have to be jolly dishonest to always think of that,” Montagu
answered indignantly.

“You will be jolly rude and disagreeable if you never think of it,” Mr.
Wycherly retorted. “Besides, did she ask you for your opinion?”

“Well, no—but it seemed such a pity to go on liking such stuff. People
must begin to learn what’s good and what’s bad sometime—and I shouldn’t
think she’s stupid.”

“I am quite sure she is not stupid, and I am equally sure that she is
painfully sensitive and that you were more than a little stupid not to
see it.”

“Me, stupid!” Montagu repeated in surprise. “No one has ever called me
that before.”

Mr. Wycherly chuckled. “I thought,” said he, “that the presence of a
young girl among us would be mentally stimulating. She has not been in
the house two days and yet, you see, already she has suggested to you
new possibilities in yourself. By the way—just make a note of any poems
you can think of bearing on mountains.”

“Why, there are thousands,” cried Montagu, aghast.

“Sure to be in Wordsworth,” said Mr. Wycherly. “Anyway, we’ll mark the
places.”