Selina and Nelson

I suppose 2013 is a battle year. We already had here the battle of Vienna and the battle of Leipzig, now – the battle of Trafalgar (1805 – again Napoleon!) remembered by children in Kenneth Grahame „Dream Days”.

THE TWENTY-FIRST OF OCTOBER

(…) At the time of Selina’s weird seizure I was unfortunately away from home, on a loathsome visit to an aunt; and my account is therefore feebly compounded from hearsay. It was an absence I never ceased to regret – scoring it up, with a sense of injury, against the aunt. There was a splendid uselessness about the whole performance that specially appealed to my artistic sense. That it should have been Selina, too, who should break out this way – Selina, who had just become a regular subscriber to the „Young Ladies’ Journal,” and who allowed herself to be taken out to strange teas with an air of resignation palpably assumed – this was a special joy, and served to remind me that much of this dreaded convention that was creeping over us might be, after all, only veneer. Edward also was absent, getting licked into shape at school; but to him the loss was nothing. With his stern practical bent he wouldn’t have seen any sense in it – to recall one of his favourite expressions. To Harold, however, for whom the gods had always cherished a special tenderness, it was granted, not only to witness, but also, priestlike, to feed the sacred fire itself. And if at the time he paid the penalty exacted by the sordid unimaginative ones who temporarily rule the roast, he must ever after, one feels sure, have carried inside him some of the white gladness of the acolyte who, greatly privileged, has been permitted to swing a censer at the sacring of the very Mass.

October was mellowing fast, and with it the year itself; full of tender hints, in woodland and hedgerow, of a course well-nigh completed. From all sides that still afternoon you caught the quick breathing and sob of the runner nearing the goal. Preoccupied and possessed, Selina had strayed down the garden and out into the pasture beyond, where, on a bit of rising ground that dominated the garden on one side and the downs with the old coach-road on the other, she had cast herself down to chew the cud of fancy. There she was presently joined by Harold, breathless and very full of his latest grievance. (…)

„D’you know what day it is?” said Selina presently, in a low voice, looking far away before her.

Harold did not appear to know, nor yet to care.

„It’s Trafalgar Day,” went on Selina, trancedly; „Trafalgar Day – and nobody cares!”

Something in her tone told Harold that he was not behaving quite becomingly. (…)

„Over there,” resumed Selina–she was gazing out in the direction of the old highroad” over there the coaches used to go by. Uncle Thomas was telling me about it the other day. And the people used to watch for ’em coming, to tell the time by, and p’r’aps to get their parcels. And one morning – they wouldn’t be expecting anything different – one morning, first there would be a cloud of dust, as usual, and then the coach would come racing by, and THEN they would know! For the coach would be dressed in laurel, all laurel from stem to stern! And the coachman would be wearing laurel, and the guard would be wearing laurel; and then they would know, then they would know!”

Harold listened in respectful silence, (…) had all the natural instincts of a gentleman; of whom it is one of the principal marks, if not the complete definition, never to show signs of being bored. Selina rose to her feet, and paced the turf restlessly with a short quarter-deck walk.
„Why can’t we DO something?” she burst out presently. „HE – he did everything – why can’t we do anything for him?”
„WHO did everything?” inquired Harold, meekly. (…)
„Why, Nelson, of course,” said Selina, shortly, still looking restlessly around for help or suggestion.
„But he’s – he’s DEAD, isn’t he?” asked Harold, slightly puzzled.
„What’s that got to do with it?” retorted his sister, resuming her caged-lion promenade.

Harold was somewhat taken aback. (… ) And now he was given to understand that the situation had not materially changed! He would have to revise his ideas, it seemed. Sitting up on end, he looked towards the garden for assistance in the task. Thence, even as he gazed, a tiny column of smoke rose straight up into the still air. The gardener had been sweeping that afternoon, and now, an unconscious priest, was offering his sacrifice of autumn leaves to the calm-eyed goddess of changing hues and chill forebodings who was moving slowly about the land that golden afternoon. Harold was up and off in a moment (…). Here was fire, real fire, to play with, and that was even better than messing with water, or remodelling the plastic surface of the earth. Of all the toys the world provides for right-minded persons, the original elements rank easily the first.

But Selina sat on where she was, her chin on her fists; and her fancies whirled and drifted, here and there, in curls and eddies, along with the smoke she was watching. As the quick-footed dusk of the short October day stepped lightly over the garden, little red tongues of fire might be seen to leap and vanish in the smoke. Harold, anon staggering under armfuls of leaves, anon stoking vigorously, was discernible only at fitful intervals. It was another sort of smoke that the inner eye of Selina was looking upon, – a smoke that hung in sullen banks round the masts and the hulls of the fighting ships; a smoke from beneath which came thunder and the crash and the splinter-rip, the shout of the boarding party, the choking sob of the gunner stretched by his gun; a smoke from out of which at last she saw, as through a riven pall, the radiant spirit of the Victor, crowned with the coronal of a perfect death, leap in full assurance up into the ether that Immortals breathe. The dusk was glooming towards darkness when she rose and moved slowly down towards the beckoning fire; something of the priestess in her stride, something of the devotee in the set purpose of her eye.
The leaves were well alight by this time, and Harold had just added an old furze bush, which flamed and crackled stirringly.

„Go ‚n’ get some more sticks,” ordered Selina, „and shavings, ‚n’ chunks of wood, ‚n’ anything you can find. Look here – in the kitchen-garden there’s a pile of old pea-sticks. Fetch as many as you can carry, and then go back and bring some more!”
„But I say, – ” began Harold, amazedly, scarce knowing his sister, and with a vision of a frenzied gardener, pea-stickless and threatening retribution.
„Go and fetch ’em quick! ” shouted Selina, stamping with impatience.

Harold ran off at once, true to the stern system of discipline in which he had been nurtured. But his eyes were like round O’s, and as he ran he talked fast to himself, in evident disorder of mind. The pea-sticks made a rare blaze, and the fire, no longer smouldering sullenly, leapt up and began to assume the appearance of a genuine bonfire. Harold, awed into silence at first, began to jump round it with shouts of triumph. Selina looked on grimly, with knitted brow; she was not yet fully satisfied.

„Can’t you get any more sticks?” she said presently. „Go and hunt about. Get some old hampers and matting and things out of the tool-house. Smash up that old cucumber frame Edward shoved you into, the day we were playing scouts and Mohicans. Stop a bit! Hooray! I know. You come along with me.”
Hard by there was a hot-house, Aunt Eliza’s special pride and joy, and even grimly approved of by the gardener. At one end, in an out-house adjoining, the necessary firing was stored; and to this sacred fuel, of which we were strictly forbidden to touch a stick, Selina went straight. Harold followed obediently, prepared for any crime after that of the pea-sticks, but pinching himself to see if he were really awake.
„You bring some coals,” said Selina briefly, without any palaver or pro-and-con discussion. „Here’s a basket. I’LL manage the faggots!”

In a very few minutes there was little doubt about its being a genuine bonfire and no paltry makeshift. Selina, a Maenad now, hatless and tossing disordered locks, all the dross of the young lady purged out of her, stalked around the pyre of her own purloining, or prodded it with a pea-stick. And as she prodded she murmured at intervals, „I KNEW there was something we could do! It isn’t much – but still it’s SOMETHING!”

The gardener had gone home to his tea. Aunt Eliza had driven out for hers a long way off, and was not expected back till quite late; and this far end of the garden was not overlooked by any windows. So the Tribute blazed on merrily unchecked. Villagers far away, catching sight of the flare, muttered something about „them young devils at their tricks again,” and trudged on beer-wards. Never a thought of what day it was, never a thought for Nelson, who preserved their honest pint-pots, to be paid for in honest pence, and saved them from litres and decimal coinage. Nearer at hand, frightened rabbits popped up and vanished with a flick of white tails; scared birds fluttered among the branches, or sped across the glade to quieter sleeping-quarters; but never a bird nor a beast gave a thought to the hero to whom they owed it that each year their little homes of horsehair, wool, or moss, were safe stablished ‚neath the flap of the British flag; and that Game Laws, quietly permanent, made la chasse a terror only to their betters. No one seemed to know, nor to care, nor to sympathise. In all the ecstasy of her burnt-offering and sacrifice, Selina stood alone. (…)

***
„The best of life is but intoxication;” and Selina, who during her brief inebriation had lived in an ecstasy as golden as our drab existence affords, had to experience the inevitable bitterness of awakening sobriety, when the dying down of the flames into sullen embers coincided with the frenzied entrance of Aunt Eliza on the scene…

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