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A short story by A. A. Milne

The Halo They Gave Themselves

Title:     The Halo They Gave Themselves
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

[A collaboration by the Authors of "The Broken Halo" and "The Woman Thou Gavest Me."]


(MRS. BARCLAY _begins_)

It was a beautiful Sunday morning. All nature browsed in solemn Sabbath stillness. The Little Grey Woman of the Night-Light was hurrying, somewhat late, to church.

Down the white ribbon of road the Virile Benedict of the Libraries came bicycling, treadling easily from the ankles. He rode boldly, with only one hand on the handle-bars, the other in the pocket of his white flannel cricketing trousers. His footballing tie, with his college arms embroidered upon it, flapped gently in the breeze. To look at him you would have said that he was probably a crack polo player on his way to defend the championship against all comers, or the captain of a county golf eleven. As he rode, his soul overflowing with the joy of life, he hummed the Collect for the Day.

It was exactly opposite the church that he ran into the Little Grey Woman of the Night-Light. He had just flashed past a labourer in the road--known to his cronies as the Flap-eared Denizen of the Turnip-patch--a labourer who in the dear dead days of Queen Victoria would have touched his hat humbly, but who now, in this horrible age of attempts to level all class distinctions, actually went on lighting his pipe! Alas, that the respectful deference of the poor toward the rich is now a thing of the past! So thought the Virile Benedict of the Libraries, and in thinking this he had let his mind wander from the important business of guiding his bicycle! In another moment he had run into the Little Grey Woman of the Night-Light!

She had seen him coming and had given a warning cry, but it was too late. The next moment he shot over his handle-bars; but even as he revolved through the air he wondered how old she really was, and what, if any, was her income. For since the death of the Little White Lady he had formed a habit of marrying elderly women for their money, and his fifth or sixth wife had perished of old age only a few months ago.

[_Hall Caine_ (waking up). _Who, pray, is the Little White Lady?_

_Mrs. Barclay. His first wife. She comes in my book, "The Broken Halo," now in its two hundredth edition._

_Hall Caine_ (annoyed). _Tut!_]

"Jove," he said cheerily, as he picked himself and her and his bicycle up, "that was a nasty spill. As my Aunt Louisa used to say to the curate when he upset the milk-jug into her lap, 'No milk, thank you.'" His brown eyes danced with amusement as he related this reminiscence of his boyhood. To the Little Grey Woman he seemed to exhale youth from every pore.

"What did your Aunt Louisa say when her ankle was sprained?" she asked with a rueful smile.

In an instant the merry banter faded from the Virile Benedict's brown eyes, and was replaced by the commanding look of one who has taken a brilliant degree in all his medical examinations.

"Allow me," he said brusquely; "I am a doctor." He bent down and listened to her ankle.

It did not take Dr. Dick Cameron's quick ear long to find out all there was to know. His manner became very gentle and his voice very low; and, though he continued to exhale youth, he did it less ostentatiously than before.

"I must carry you home," he said, picking her up in his strong young arms; "you cannot go to church to-day."

"But the curate is preaching!"

Dr. Dick murmured something profane under his breath about curates. He had, alas! these moments of irreverence; as, for instance, on one occasion when he had spoken of Mr. Louis N. Parker's noble picture-play, "Joseph and his Brethren," quite shortly as "Jos. Bros."

"I will carry you home," he said gently. "Tell me where you live, Little Grey Woman."

She smiled up at him bravely. "The Manor House," she said.

His voice became yet more gentle. "And now tell me your income," he whispered; and his whole being trembled with emotion as he waited for her reply.

[_Mrs. Barclay. There! That's the end of the chapter. Now it's your turn._

_Hall Caine_ (waking up). _I don't know if I told you that in my last great work of the imagination, in which I collaborated with the Bishop of London, I wrote throughout in the first person. Nearly a million copies were sold, thus showing that the heart of the great public approved of my method of telling my story through the mouth of a young and innocent girl, exposed to great temptation. I should wish, therefore, to repeat that method in this story, if you could so arrange it._

_Mrs. Barclay. But that's easy. The Little Grey Woman shall tell Dr. Dick the story of her first marriage. I did that in my last book, "The Broken Halo," now in its two hundredth edition._

_Hall Caine_ (annoyed). _Tut!_]



(MRS. BARCLAY _continues_)

They were having tea in the garden--the Little Grey Woman and Dr. Dick. More than six months had elapsed since the accident outside the church, and Dr. Dick still remained on at the Manor House in charge of his patient, wishing to be handy in case the old sprain came on again suddenly. She was eighty-two and had twelve thousand a year. On the lawn a thrush was singing.

"How fresh and green the world is to-day," sighed Dr. Dick, leaning back and exhaling youth. "As the curate used to say to my Aunt Louisa, 'A delightful shower after the rain.'" He laughed merrily, and threw a crumb at the thrush with the perfect aim of a good cricketer throwing the ball at the wickets.

"My dear boy," said the Little Grey Woman, "the world is always fresh and green to youth like yours. But to an old woman like me----"

"Not old," said Dick, with an ardent glance; "only eighty-two. Mrs. Beauchamp, will you marry me?"

She looked at him with a sad but tender smile.

"What _would_ my friends say?" she asked.

"Bother your friends."

"My dear boy, you would be considerably surprised if you could glance through an approximate list of the friends I possess to-day. Do you know that if I marry you I shall be required to make an explanation to several royal ladies--that is, if they graciously grant me the opportunity so to do."

"But I want your mon--I mean I _love_ you," he pleaded, the light of youth shining in his brown eyes.

The Little Grey Woman looked at him tenderly. Their eyes met.

"Listen," she said. "I will tell you the story of my first marriage, and then if you wish you shall ask me again."

Dr. Dick helped himself to another slice of cake and leant back to listen.

[_Mrs. Barclay. There you are. Now you can do Chapter Three._

_Hall Caine. Excellent. It is quite time that one got some emotion into this story. In "The Woman Thou Gavest Me," of which more than a million----_

_Mrs. Barclay. Emotion, indeed! My last book is already in its two hundredth edition._

_Hall Caine_ (annoyed). _Tut!_]



(MR. HALL CAINE _takes up the tale_)

I have always had a wonderful memory, and my earliest recollection is of hearing my father ask, on the day when I was born, whether it was a boy or a girl. When they told him "a girl," he let fall a rough expression which sent the blood coursing over my mother's pale cheeks like lobster-sauce coursing over a turbot. My father, John Boomster, was a great advertising agent, perhaps the greatest in the island, though he always said that there was one man who could beat him. He wanted a son to succeed him in the business, and in the years to come he never forgave me for being a girl. He would often glare at me in silence for three-quarters of an hour, and then, letting fall the same rough expression, throw a boot at me and stride from the room. A hard, cruel man, my father, and yet, in his fashion, he was fond of me.

It was not until I was eighteen that he first spoke to me. To my dying day I shall never forget that evening; nor his words, which bit themselves into my mind as a red-hot iron bites its way into cheese.

"Nell," he said, for that was my name, though he had never used it before, "I've arranged that you are to marry Lord Wurzel two months from to-day."

At these terrible words the blood ebbed slowly from my ears and my hands grew hot.

"I do not know him," I said in a stifled voice.

"You will to-morrow," he laughed brutally, and with another rough word he strode from the room.

Lord Wurzel! I ran upstairs to my room and flung myself face downwards on the bed. In my agony I bit a large piece out of my pillow. The blood flowed forward and backward over me in waves, and I burst every now and then into a passion of weeping.

By and by I began to feel more serene. I decided that it was my duty to obey my father. My heart leapt within me at the thought of doing my duty, and to calm myself I put on my hat and wandered into the glen. It was very silent in the glen. There was no sound but the rustling of the leaves overhead, the popping of the insects underfoot, the sneezing of the cattle, the whistling of the pigs, the coughing of the field-mice, the roaring of the rabbits, and the deep organ-song of the sea.

But suddenly, above all these noises, I heard a voice which sent the blood ebbing and flowing in my heart and caused the back of my neck to quiver with ecstasy.

"Nell!" it said.

It was the voice of my old comrade, Andrew Spinnaker, who had played with me in our childhood's days, and whom I had not seen now for eight years.

"Andrew!" I cried, as I turned round. "What are you doing here?"

"I am just off to discover the South Pole," he said. "My shipmates are waiting for me to command the expedition."

I noticed then for the first time that he was dressed in a seal-skin cap and a pair of sleeping-bags.

"Nell," he went on, "before I go, tell me you love me."

My heart fluttered like a captured bird; my knees trembled like a drunken spider's; my throat was stifled like a stifled throat. A huge wave of something or other surged over me and told me that the great mystery of the world had happened to me.

I was in love.

I was in love with Andrew Spinnaker.

"Andrew," I cried, falling on his startled chin, "I love you." All the back of my neck thrilled with joy.

But my joy was shortlived. No sooner had I become aware that I loved Andrew Spinnaker than my conscience told me I had no right to do so. I was going to marry Lord Wurzel, and to love another than my husband was sin. I shook Andrew off my lips.

"I love you," I said, "but I cannot marry you. I am marrying Lord Wurzel."

"That beast?" cried Andrew, in the impetuous sailor fashion which so endeared him to his shipmates. "When I come back I will thrash him as I would thrash a vicious ape."

"When will that be?"

"In about two months," said my darling boy. "This is going to be a very quick expedition."

"Alas, that will be my wedding day," I said with a low sob like that of a buffalo yearning for its mate. "It will be too late."

Andrew took me in his strong arms. I should not have let him, but I could not help it.

"Listen," he said, "I will start back from the Pole a day before my shipmates, and save you from that d-sh-d beast. And then I will marry you, Nell."

There was a roaring in my ears like the roaring of the bath when the tap is left on; many waters seemed to rush upon me; my hat fell off, and then deep oblivion came over me and I swooned.

. . . . .

To go through my emotions in detail during the next two months would be but to harrow you needlessly. Suffice it to say that seventeen times I flung myself face downwards on my bed and bit a piece out of the pillow, on twenty-nine occasions the blood ebbed slowly from my face, and my heart fluttered like a captured bird, while in a hundred and forty instances a wave of emotion surged slowly over my whole body, leaving me trembling like an aspen leaf. Otherwise my health remained good.

It was the night before the wedding. The bad Lord Wurzel had just left me with words of love upon his lying lips. To-morrow, unless Andrew Spinnaker saved me, I should be Lady Wurzel.

"A marconigram for you, miss," said our faithful old gardener, William, entering the drawing-room noiselessly by the chimney. "I brought it myself to be sure you got it."

With trembling fingers I tore it open. How my heart leapt and the hot colour flooded my neck and brow when I recognised the dear schoolboy writing of my beloved Andrew! I have the message still. It went like this:

"Wireless--South Pole.

Arrived safe. Found Pole. Weather charming. Blue sky. Not a breath of wind. Am wearing my thick socks. Sun never going down. Constellations revolving without dipping. Moon going sideways. Am starting for England to-morrow. Arrive Victoria twelve o'clock, Wednesday.--ANDREW."

Back on Wednesday! And to-morrow was Tuesday--my wedding day! There was no hope. I felt like a shipwrecked voyager. For the thirty-fifth time since the beginning of the month deep oblivion came over me, and I swooned.

[_Hall Caine. I think you might go on now. I have put a little life into the story. It is, perhaps, not quite so vivid as my last work, "The Woman Thou Gavest Me," of which more than a million copies----_

_Mrs. Barclay. In the two hundredth edition of "The Broken Halo"----_

_Hall Caine_ (annoyed). _Tut!_]



(MRS. BARCLAY _resumes_)

At this point in The Little Grey Woman's story handsome Dr. Dick put down his third piece of cake and got up. There was a baffled look on his virile face which none of his previous wives had ever seen there. For once Dr. Dick was nonplussed!

"Is there much more of your story?" he asked.

"Five hundred and nineteen pages," she said.

The Virile Benedict of the Libraries took up his hat. Never had he exhaled youth so violently, yet never had he looked such a man. He had made up his mind. She was rich; but, after all, money was not everything.

"Good-bye," he said.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: Halo They Gave Themselves