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AUSTIN AND HIS FRIENDS

by

FREDERIC H. BALFOUR

Author Of "The Expiation of Eugene," etc.

London
Greening & Co., Ltd.

1906







[Illustration: DAPHNIS AT THE FOUNTAIN]



* * * * *

Advertisement


The old-fashioned ghost-story was always terrifying and ghastly;
something that made people afraid to go to bed, or to look over their
shoulders, or to enter a room in the dark. It dealt with apparitions
in a white sheet, and clanking chains, and dreadful faces that peered
out from behind the window curtains in a haunted chamber. And the more
blood-curdling it was, the more keenly people enjoyed it--until they
were left alone, and then they were apt to wish that they had been
reading Robinson Crusoe or Alison's History of Europe instead. Now the
present book embodies an attempt to write a _cheerful_ ghost-story; a
story in which the ghostly element is of a friendly and pleasant
character, and sheds a sense of happiness and sunshine over the entire
life of the ghost-seer. Whether the author has succeeded in doing so
will be for his readers to decide. It is only necessary to add that he
has not introduced a single supernormal incident that has not occurred
and been authenticated in the recorded experiences of persons lately
or still alive.

* * * * *




Austin and His Friends

Chapter the First


It was rather a beautiful old house--the house where Austin lived.
That is, it was old-fashioned, low-browed, solid, and built of that
peculiar sort of red brick which turns a rich rose-colour with age;
and this warm rosy tint was set off to advantage by the thick mantle
of dark green ivy in which it was partly encased, and by the row of
tall white and purple irises which ran along the whole length of the
sunniest side of the building. There was an ancient sun-dial just
above the door, and all the windows were made of small, square
panes--not a foot of plate-glass was there about the place; and if the
rooms were nor particularly large or stately, they had that
comfortable and settled look which tells of undisturbed occupancy by
the same inmates for many years. But the principal charm of the place
was the garden in which the house stood. In this case the frame was
really more beautiful than the picture. On one side, the grounds were
laid out in very formal style, with straight walks, clipped box
hedges, an old stone fountain, and a perfect bowling-green of a lawn;
while at right angles to this there was a plot of land in which all
regularity was set at naught, and sweet-peas, tulips, hollyhocks,
dahlias, gillyflowers, wall-flowers, sun-flowers, and a dozen others
equally sweet and friendly shared the soil with gooseberry bushes and
thriving apple-trees. Taking it all in all, it was a lovable and most
reposeful home, and Austin, who had lived there ever since he could
remember, was quite unable to imagine any lot in life that could be
compared to his.

Now this was curious, for Austin was a hopeless cripple. Up to the age
of sixteen, he had been the most active, restless, healthy boy in all
the countryside. He used to spend his days in boating, bicycling,
climbing hills, and wandering at large through the woods and leafy
lanes which stretched far and wide in all directions of the compass.
One of his chief diversions had been sheep-chasing; nothing delighted
him more than to start a whole flock of the astonished creatures
careering madly round some broad green meadow, their fat woolly backs
wobbling and jolting along in a compact mass of mild perplexity at
this sudden interruption of their never-ending meal, while Austin
scampered at their tails, as much excited with the sport as Don
Quixote himself when he dispersed the legions of Alifanfaron. Let
hare-coursers, otter-hunters, and pigeon-torturers blame him if they
choose; the exercise probably did the sheep a vast amount of good, and
Austin fully believed that they enjoyed it quite as much as he did.
Then suddenly a great calamity befell him. A weakness made itself
apparent in his right knee, accompanied by considerable pain. The
family doctor looked anxious and puzzled; a great surgeon was called
in, and the two shook their heads together in very portentous style.
It was a case of caries, they said, and Austin mustn't hunt sheep any
more. Soon he had to lie upon the sofa for several hours a day, and
what made Aunt Charlotte more anxious than anything else was that he
didn't seem to mind lying on the sofa, as he would have done if he had
felt strong and well; on the contrary, he grew thin and listless, and
instead of always jumping up and trying to evade the doctor's orders,
appeared quite content to lie there, quiet and resigned, from one
week's end to another. That, thought shrewd Aunt Charlotte, betokened
mischief. Another consultation followed, and then a very terrible
sentence was pronounced. It was necessary, in order to save his life,
that Austin should lose his leg.

What does a boy generally feel under such circumstances? What would
you and I feel? Austin's first impulse was to burst into a passionate
fit of weeping, and he yielded to it unreservedly. But, the fit once
past, he smiled brilliantly through his tears. True, he would never
again be able to enjoy those glorious ramps up hill and down dale that
up till then had sent the warm life coursing through his veins. Never
more would he go scorching along the level roads against the wind on
his cherished bicycle. The open-air athletic days of stress and effort
were gone, never to return. But there might be compensations; who
could tell? Happiness, all said and done, need not depend upon a
shin-bone more or less. He might lose a leg, but legs were, after all,
a mere concomitant to life--life did not consist in legs. There would
still be something left to live for, and who could tell whether that
something might not be infinitely grander and nobler and more
satisfying than even the rapture of flying ten miles an hour on his
wheel, or chevying a flock of agitated sheep from one pasture to
another?

Where this sudden inspiration came from, he then had no idea; but come
it did, in the very nick of time, and helped him to dry his tears. The
day of destiny also came, and his courage was put to the test. He knew
well enough, of course, that of the operation he would feel nothing.
But the sight of the hard, white, narrow pallet on which he had to
lie, the cold glint of the remorseless instruments, the neatly folded
packages of lint and cotton-wool, and the faint, horrible smell of
chloroform turned him rather sick for a minute. Then he glanced
downwards, with a sense of almost affectionate yearning, at the limb
he was about to lose. "Good-bye, dear old leg!" he murmured, with a
little laugh which smothered a rising sob. "We've had some lovely
ramps together, but the best of friends must part."

Afterwards, during the long days of dreary convalescence, he began to
feel an interest in what remained of it; and then he found himself
taking a sort of ęsthetic pleasure in the smooth, beautifully-rounded
stump, which really was in its way quite an artistic piece of work. At
last, when the flesh was properly healed, and the white skin growing
healthily again around his abbreviated member, he grew eager to make
acquaintance with his new leg; for of course it was never intended
that he should perform the rest of his earthly pilgrimage with only a
leg and a half--let the added half be of what material it might. And
his excitement may be better imagined than described when, one
afternoon, the surgeon came in with a most wonderful object in his
arms--a lovely prop of bright, black, burnished wood, set off with
steel couplings and the most fascinating straps you ever saw. And the
best of all was the socket, in which his soft white stump fitted as
comfortably as though they had been made for one another--as, in fact,
one of them had been. It was a little difficult to walk just at first,
for Austin was accustomed to begin by throwing out his foot, whereas
now he had to begin by moving his thigh; this naturally made him
stagger, and for some time he could only get along with the aid of a
crutch. But to be able to walk again at all was a great achievement,
and then, if you only looked at it in the proper light, it really was
great fun.

There was, however, one person who, probably from a defective sense of
humour, was unable to see any fun in it at all. Aunt Charlotte would
have given her very ears for Austin, but her affection was of a
somewhat irritable sort, and generally took the form of scolding. She
was not a stupid woman by any means, but there was one thing in the
world she never could understand, and that was Austin himself. He
wasn't like other boys one bit, she always said. He had such a queer,
topsy-turvy way of looking at things; would express the most
outrageous opinions with an innocent unconsciousness that made her
long to box his ears, and support the most arrant absurdities by
arguments that conveyed not the smallest meaning to her intellect.
Look at him now, for instance; a cripple for life, and pretending to
see nothing in it but a joke, and expressing as much admiration for
his horrible wooden leg as though it had been a king's sceptre! In
Aunt Charlotte's view, Austin ought to have pitied himself immensely,
and expressed a hope that God would help him to bear his burden with
orthodox resignation to the Divine will; instead of which, he seemed
totally unconscious of having any burden at all--a state of mind that
was nothing less than impious. Austin was now seventeen, and it was
high time that he took more serious views of life. Ever since he was a
baby he had been her special charge; for his mother had died in giving
him birth, and his father had followed her about a twelvemonth later.
She had always done her duty to the boy, and loved him as though he
had been her own; but she reminded onlookers rather of a conscientious
elderly cat with limited views of natural history condemned by
circumstances to take care of a very irresponsible young eaglet.



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