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PAGE 3

Gabriel-Ernest
by [?]

At breakfast next morning Van Cheel was conscious that his feeling of uneasiness regarding yesterday’s episode had not wholly disappeared, and he resolved to go by train to the neighbouring cathedral town, hunt up Cunningham, and learn from him what he had really seen that had prompted the remark about a wild beast in the woods. With this resolution taken, his usual cheerfulness partially returned, and he hummed a bright little melody as he sauntered to the morning-room fo
r his customary cigarette. As he entered the room the melody made way abruptly for a pious invocation. Gracefully asprawl on the ottoman, in an attitude of almost exaggerated repose, was the boy of the woods. He was drier than when Van Cheele had last seen him, but no other alteration was noticeable in his toilet.

‘How dare you come here?’ asked Van Cheele furiously.

‘You told me I was not to stay in the woods,’ said the boy calmly.

‘But not to come here. Supposing my aunt should see you!’

And with a view to minimizing that catastrophe Van Cheele hastily obscured as much of his unwelcome guest as possible under the folds of a Morning Post. At that moment his aunt entered the room.

‘This is a poor boy who has lost his way—and lost his memory. He doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from,’ explained Van Cheele desperately, glancing apprehensively at the waif’s face to see whether he was going to add inconvenient candour to his other savage propensities.

Miss Van Cheele was enormously interested.

‘Perhaps his underlinen is marked,’ she suggested.

‘He seems to have lost most of that, too,’ said Van Cheele, making frantic little grabs at the Morning Postto keep it in its place.

A naked homeless child appealed to Miss Van Cheele as warmly as a stray kitten or derelict puppy would have done.

‘We must do all we can for him,’ she decided, and in a very short time a messenger, dispatched to the rectory, where a page-boy was kept, had returned with a suit of pantry clothes, and the necessary accessories of shirt, shoes, collar, etc. Clothed, clean, and groomed, the boy lost none of his uncanniness in Van Cheele’s eyes, but his aunt found him sweet.

‘We must call him something till we know who he really is,’ she said. ‘Gabriel-Ernest, I think; those are nice suitable names. ’

Van Cheele agreed, but he privately doubted whether they were being grafted on to a nice suitable child. His misgivings were not diminished by the fact that his staid and elderly spaniel had bolted out of the house at the first incoming of the boy, and now obstinately remained shivering and yapping at the farther end of the orchard, while the canary, usually as vocally industrious as Van Cheele himself, had put itself on an allowance of frightened cheeps. More than ever he was resolved to consult Cunningham without loss of time.

As he drove off to the station his aunt was arranging that Gabriel-Ernest should help her to entertain the infant members of her Sunday-school class at tea that afternoon.

Cunningham was not at first disposed to be communicative.

‘My mother died of some brain trouble,’ he explained, ‘so you will understand why I am averse to dwelling on anything of an impossibly fantastic nature that I may see or think that I have seen. ’

‘But what didyou see?’ persisted Van Cheele.

‘What I thought I saw was something so extraordinary that no really sane man could dignify it with the credit of having actually happened. I was standing, the last evening I was with you, half-hidden in the hedgegrowth by the orchard gate, watching the dying glow of the sunset. Suddenly I became aware of a naked boy, a bather from some neighbouring pool, I took him to be, who was standing out on the bare hillside also watching the sunset. His pose was so suggestive of some wild faun of Pagan myth that I instantly wanted to engage him as a model, and in another moment I think I should have hailed him. But just then the sun dipped out of view, and all the orange and pink slid out of the landscape, leaving it cold and grey. And at the same moment an astounding thing happened—the boy vanished too!’