The Claim of the Past by Logan Pearsall Smith

They had all been to luncheon with Mr. Windus, and now, under his guidance, they started out to see the College, walking together across the quadrangle through the summer sunshine. Mr. Windus talked to Mrs. Ellwood of Dalmouth, the Devonshire town where she lived, and he had friends; the others were gossiping of the heat, the Oxford dances, while Ruth Ellwood and young Rutherford came last of all.

Rutherford too belonged to Dalmouth, was, indeed, a cousin of the Ellwoods—all the Dalmouth families were somehow related; but going away early to school, and afterwards to Oxford, he had come at last to seem more like a stranger to them than a friend or cousin. And this invitation to meet the Ellwoods he had accepted merely out of politeness; he was busy with his work, felt in no mood for the Oxford gaieties, and anyhow cared, or thought he cared, very little indeed for Dalmouth or the Dalmouth people.

But soon he had begun to listen with pleasure and interest to the home news, as his charming cousin told it.

"And so the town isn't much changed?" he asked; "and the different cousins, what has become of them all?"

With eager interest she went on telling him of all the old families, who lived in the different houses; how the young girls had grown up—there were so many pretty ones among the cousins!—and the young men had gone into the family offices. Some of them were married and settled down already.

"And Aunt Warner's house under the beeches, with its lawn, where we used to play, is it just the same?"

"Oh, yes, just the same, only the Bartons live there now—Uncle James's family; and on Thursdays we meet there—I mean the cousins' Tennis Club—and when it rains we dance in the old drawing room. But how shocked dear old Aunt Warner would have been to see us!" Then, as they went through the gateway into the College garden, she added, "I'm afraid all this gossip bores you; it's interesting for us who live at home, but for other people—"

"Oh, but I belong to Dalmouth!" he protested.

"Of course you do, only it's so long since you've been there," she said in half apology, "and we thought—I thought you didn't care."

It was indeed a long time, it was years since he had been there, he remembered with a certain regret for the preoccupation, the youthful intolerance, that had made him half despise his home. It was a charming place after all, the grey seaport town with its wharves, and shipping, and narrow streets, and the pleasant homes and gardens just outside where his cousins and uncles, the merchants, lived—where as a boy he had lived. How well he remembered watching, on summer afternoons, the white sails of the family ships, as they floated up with the tide past the green lawns and square old houses. A pleasant life it must be there, he thought, and quite untroubled in its tranquil interests by any great ambitions or ideas—the echoes of which, indeed, could hardly reach them in their quiet old corner of the world.

And, as they talked, the young man began to fancy idly what his own life would have been, had he never gone away from the old Devonshire town. It had been intended, of course, that he should stay there, and take his own part in the family concerns; even yet his uncles were keeping a place for him; and although they feared he was quite spoiled by Oxford, yet they would welcome him back, he knew, should he only give up those ambitions, that to them—and to himself sometimes!—seemed so impossible, so dreamy and unreal.

Ruth Ellwood stopped now and then to look at the garden flowers. "What lovely irises, and how quaint those roses are, trained so stiffly on the old walls."

"Are you fond of gardening?" he asked.

She was very fond of it, she said—not that she knew much about it! But she liked planting things and tying them up, and she always gathered the flowers for the house. Things grew so well at Dalmouth—roses and peonies, and great chrysanthemums in the autumn. Only it made her a little sad to see the chrysanthemums; their summers were so lovely!

Rutherford knew the house in which his cousin lived, and now he could almost see her there, moving over the sweet grass, hatless, in the morning light, to gather roses, filling old china bowls with their fragrant leaves; or walking home on rainy evenings past the great cedar, the wet lawn, and borders of dripping flowers.

"How beautiful she is!" he thought, looking furtively at her. The impression of this beauty, her pleasant voice, the friendly people she spoke of, and all the memories that made them seem so intimate together, affected him with a curious fresh sense of happiness, coming into his life, which had been of late somewhat discouraged and lonely, with a charm as real and actual as that of the warmth of the sun, the scent of roses.

They had reached the end of the garden, and as they turned back, still following the others, he said hesitatingly to his companion something about coming to Dalmouth soon for a visit.

"Oh, do come!" she cried, "I'm sure you'll enjoy it, and they will all be so glad to see you."

"I hope so—but I'm afraid they must think rather badly of me—will be prejudiced against me; you will have to introduce me."

"Oh, I will—only really, they won't be prejudiced against you." Then she added, "Oxford is so charming!" in a way that touched Rutherford a little. She at least, in spite of all she had heard at home, plainly could see nothing so dreadful or dangerous in Oxford, or her cousin, after all!

Yes, Oxford was charming, she said again, and not at all what she had expected—at first she had been really almost afraid to come! But it was all so pleasant; why had people such a prejudice against the University?—her two brothers wanted to come, but her father would not hear of it. But how could it unfit them for living at home? She had seen how the undergraduates lived. And her brothers would have enjoyed it so. She had been in several of the Colleges now, and had been on the river, and was going out to tea that afternoon, and afterwards, to a dance.

"Tell me," she asked, as they followed the others towards the chapel door, "are you going to any of the dances?"

He was afraid he wouldn't have the time, he said.

"Oh, what a pity, you ought to come," she cried; but her voice was hushed when, out of the glare and sunshine, they went into the blue obscurity, the cool old smell and quiet of the chapel.

The ladies looked at the windows, the religious carving; and their movement, as they went about, filled with a rustling sound the vacant silence of the place. Then they all gathered in a group while one of the Fellows told them something of the history of the chapel: how it had been built in the fourteenth century, and how ever since then the members of the College had worshipped there, and among them many whose names had afterwards grown famous.

"Tell me," Ruth Ellwood whispered, as they walked away, "is this where the undergraduates sit; where do you sit?" He showed her the Scholars' seats, and the old brass eagle from which they read the lessons, and then, when they went through the ante-chapel, she paused a moment, looking at the inscriptions and monuments.

"Were there any nice old epitaphs?" she asked. "Do show them to me, if there are."

The rest of the party had left the chapel, but could still be seen through the open door standing not far off in the sunshine, and the gossip of their voices came in faintly now and then.

The old brasses, dating from Gothic times, bore inscriptions in rhyming Latin, that Rutherford read and translated to his companion; there were monuments of a later time, adorned with urns, cherubs, and garlands—old trappings of death that made death itself seem almost quaint and charming. But in the seventeenth century the tranquil records of the scholars' lives were disturbed by echoes of old war and exile. "Reader, look to thy feet! Honest and Loyal men are sleeping under Thee," one inscription ran; and the name of more than one was recorded "who, when Loyalty and the Church fainted, lay down and Died."

Other monuments were put up to the memory of young men who had died at College. Well-born and modest, the old Latin described them, and dead, centuries ago, in the flower of their fruitless years. "Vivere dulce fuit!" one of them had complained, as four hundred years before, in florid Latin, he bade farewell to youth and hope.

Of another it was quaintly said, "Talis erat vita, qualis stylus, elegans et pura"; while another undergraduate's virtues were recorded in verses ending with the line,

"Expertus praedico, tutor eram."

Then there was an inscription in English verse, from some Cavalier poet, Rutherford thought,

"Him while fresh and fragrant Time
Cherisht in his golden prime;
Ere Hebe's hand had overlaid
His smooth cheeks with downy shade,
The rush of Death's unruly wave
Swept him off into his grave.
*     *     *     *     *
Eyes are vocall, teares have tongues,
And there be words not made with lungs;
Sententious showres: Oh let them fall!
Their cadence is rhetoricall."

Another of the same date recorded the deeds of the young scholar-soldiers "who, at the news of Battle, changed their Gownes for Armour, and Faithfully served King Charles I. from Edge Hill fight, to the End of those unhappie Wars." But one youth in that early conflict had been killed in the pursuit of victory "after Gloriously redeeming, with his own hands, the banner Royal of the King."

So they linger there for a few moments, passing from one to another of the epitaphs, with their records of knightly effort, of the ideal and romantic hopes of youth, completed afterwards, or quenched long ago by early death. And to the young man, as he spells them out, they seem at last to form a continuing tradition of lives dauntlessly lived and lost, and then recorded here, briefly, in this ancient corner of the College. His companion, too, was vaguely charmed and touched by the old inscriptions, and as they turned at last to go out she stopped in front of another tablet. Would he read it? It was too high for her to see.

Rutherford looked at it. "It's a modern one, I don't think it will interest you—"

"Oh yes, it will—do read it."

He looked at it in silence for a minute. Faint sounds of music floated into the dim chapel from the world outside—music, and distant voices calling. Then he read the name and date; a young man who had been drowned the year before. "His companions at School and College have erected this tablet, wishing to preserve the recollection of one who was much beloved, and whose influence for good was greatly felt in this place. He was of a courageous and enthusiastic nature; the example, had he lived, of his generous ambitions—" But in the middle, Rutherford's voice changed a little, and with a shiver his cousin turned and went away. Had she guessed that they had been friends, these two, or was it merely that she felt at last the chill of the place, and of all the old dead about her?

In a moment the young man turns to go out too. But as he looks through the dimness of the chapel on the summer and sunlight, and his cousin standing there outside the door, how far it all seems, how unreal! Only real to him is a sense of the briefness of life, and of the great, difficult things that may nevertheless be done or attempted before death comes. And as he walks away again with his cousin, he is quite certain, now at last, that this is no mere emotion or boyish enthusiasm, but an influence that for evil or good must rule his life—must come, at least, between him and any choice of ease and the common happiness.