Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/John Holt
BEFORE they entered the Court of Honour Meg stopped them both. She was palpitating with excitement.
"Robin," she said, "let us make him shut his eyes. Then you can take one of his hands and I can take the other, and we will lead him. And when we have taken him to the most heavenly place, he shall look suddenly!"
"I should like that," said Ben, tremulous with anticipation.
"All right," said Robin.
By this time it was as if they had been friends all their lives. They knew each other. They had not ceased talking a moment since they had set out, but it had not been about the Fair. Meg had decided that nothing should be described beforehand that all the entrancement of beauty should burst upon Ben's hungry soul, as paradise bursts upon translated spirits.
"I don't want it to be gradual," she said anxiously.
"I want it to be sudden! It can be gradual after."
She was an artist and an epicure in embryo, this child. She tasted her joys with a delicate palate, and lost no flavour of them. The rapture of yesterday was intensified tenfold to-day, because she felt it throbbing anew in this frail body beside her, in which Nature had imprisoned a soul as full of longings as her own, but not so full of power.
They took Ben by either hand and led him with the greatest care. He shut his eyes tight, and walked between them. People who glanced at them, smiled, recognising the time-honoured and familiar child-trick. They did not know that this time it was something more than that.
"The trouble is," Meg said in a low voice to Robin, "I don't know which is the most heavenly place to stand. Sometimes I think it is at one end, and sometimes at the other, and sometimes at the side."
They led their charge for some minutes indefinitely. Sometimes they paused and looked about them, speaking in undertones. Ben was rigidly faithful, and kept his eyes shut. As they hesitated for a moment near one of the buildings, a man who was descending the steps looked in their direction, and his look was one of recognition. It was the man who had watched them the day before, and he paused upon the steps, interested again, and conscious of being curious.
"What are they going to do?" he said to himself.
"They are going to do something. Where did they pick up the other one?—poor little chap!"
Meg had been looking very thoughtful during that moment of hesitancy. She spoke, and he was near enough to hear her.
"He shall open them where he can hear the water splashing in the fountain," she said. "I think that's the best."
It seemed that Robin thought so too. They turned and took their way to the end of the court where the dome lifted itself wonderful against the sky, and a splendour of rushing water from which magnificent sea-monsters rose, stood guard before.
Their Man followed them. He had had a bad night, and had come out in a dark world. The streams of pleasure-seekers, the gaily fluttering flags, the exhilaration in the very air seemed to make his world blacker and more empty. A year before he had planned to see this wonder with the one soul on earth who would have been most thrilled, and who would have made him most thrill to its deepest and highest meaning. Green grass and summer roses were waving over the earth that had shut in all dreams like these
"Now," said Meg, "open them suddenly!"
He had never been particularly fond of children; but somehow these two waifs, with their alert faces and odd independence, had wakened his interest. He was conscious of rather wanting to know where they had come from and what they would do next. The bit of the story of the Genie of the Palace of the Sea had attracted him. He had learned to love stories from the one who should have seen with him the Enchanted City. She had been a story-lover and full of fancies.
He followed the trio to the end of the great court. When they reached there, three pairs of cheeks were flushed, and the eyes that were open were glowing. Meg and Robin chose a spot of ground and stopped.
"Now," said Meg, "open them—suddenly!"
The boy opened them. The man saw the look that flashed into his face. It was a strange, quivering look, Palaces which seemed of pure marble surrounded him. He had never even dreamed of palaces. White ways rose from the lagoon, leading to fair open portals the wondering world passed through to splendours held within. A great statue of gold towered noble and marvellous with uplifted arms, holding high the emblems of its spirit and power, and at the end of this vista, through the archway, and between the line of columns bearing statues poised against the background of sky, he caught glimpses of the lake's scintillating blue.
He uttered a weird little sound. It was part exclamation and a bit of a laugh, cut short by something like a nervous sob which did not know what to do with itself.
"Oh!" he said. And then—"Oh!" again. And then "I—I don't know—what it's—like!" And he cleared his throat and stared, and Meg saw his narrow chest heave up and down.
"It isn't like anything, but—something we've dreamed of perhaps," said Meg, gazing in ecstasy with him.
"No—no!" answered Ben. "But I've never dreamed like it."
Meg put her hand on his shoulder.
"But you will now," she said. "You will now."
And their Man had been near enough to hear, and he came to them.
"Good-morning," he said. "You're having another day of it, I see."
Meg and Robin looked up at him radiant. They were both in a good enough mood to make friends. They felt friends with everybody.
"Good-morning," they answered; and Robin added, "We're going to come every day, as long as we can make our money last."
"That's a good enough idea," said their Man. "Where are your father and mother?"
Meg lifted her searching black-lashed eyes to his. She was noticing again the dreary look in his face.
"They died nearly four years ago," she answered for Robin.
"Who is with you?" asked the man, meeting her questioning gaze with a feeling that her great eyes were oddly thoughtful for a child's, and that there was a look in them he had seen before in a pair of eyes closed a year ago. It gave him an almost startled feeling.
"Nobody is with us," Meg said, "except Ben."
"You came alone?" said the man.
He looked at her for a moment in silence, and then turned away and looked across the court to where the lake gleamed through the colonnade.
"So did I," he said reflectively. "So did I. Quite alone."
Meg and Robin glanced at each other.
"Yesterday Rob and I came by ourselves," said Meg next, and she said it gently. "But we were not lonely and to-day we have Ben."
The man turned his eyes on the boy.
"You're Ben, are you?" he said.
"Yes," Ben answered. "And but for them I couldn't never have seen it—never."
"Why?" the man asked. "Almost everybody can see it."
"But not me," said Ben. "And I wanted to more than anyone—seemed like to me. And when they roomed at our house last night, mother was going to give me the fifty cents, but—but father—father, he took it away from us. And they brought me."
Then the man turned on Robin.
"Have you plenty of money?" he asked unceremoniously.
"No," said Rob.
"They're as poor as I am," put in Ben. "They couldn't afford to room anywhere but with poor people."
"But everybody"—Meg began impulsively, and then stopped, remembering that it was not Robin she was talking to.
"But everybody—what?" said the man.
It was Robin who answered for her this time.
"She said that last night,' he explained, with a half-shy laugh—"that everybody had something they could give to somebody else."
"Oh! well, it isn't always money, of course—or anything big," said Meg hurriedly. "It might be something that is ever so little."
The man laughed, but his eyes seemed to be remembering something as he looked over the lagoon again.
"That's a pretty good thing to think," he said.
"Now"—turning on Meg rather suddenly—"I wonder what you have to give to me."
"I don't know," she answered, perhaps a trifle wistfully. "The thing I give to Rob and Ben is a very little one."
"She makes up things to tell us about the places we can't pay to go into, or don't understand," said Robin. "It's not as little as she thinks it is."
"Well," said the man, "look here! Perhaps that's what you have to give to me. You came to this place alone, and so did I. I believe you're enjoying yourselves more than I am. You're going to take Ben about and tell him stories. Suppose you take me!"
"You!" Meg exclaimed. "But you're a man, and you know all about it, I daresay—and I only tell things I make up—fairy stories and—and other things. A man wouldn't care for them. He—he knows."
"He knows too much perhaps—that's the trouble," said the man. "A fairy or so might do me good. I'm not acquainted enough with them. And if I know things you don't—perhaps that's what I have to give to you."
"Why!" said Meg, her eyes widening as she looked up at his odd, clever face, "do you want to go about with us?"
"Yes," said the man, with a quick, decided nod, "I believe that's just what I want to do. I'm lonelier than you two. At least you are together. Come on, children," but it was to Meg he held out his hand. "Take me with you."
And bewildered as she was, Meg found herself giving her hand to him and being led away, Robin and Ben close beside them.