The house next William's had been unoccupied for several months, and William made full use of its garden. Its garden was in turns a jungle, a desert, an ocean, and an enchanted island. William invited select parties of his friends to it. He had come to look upon it as his own property. He hunted wild animals in it with Jumble, his trusty hound; he tracked Red Indians in it, again with Jumble, his trusty hound; and he attacked and sank ships in it, making his victims walk the plank, again with the help and assistance of Jumble, his trusty hound. Sometimes, to vary the monotony, he made Jumble, his trusty hound, walk the plank into the rain tub. This was one of the many unpleasant things that William brought into Jumble's life. It was only his intense love for William that reconciled him to his existence. Jumble was one of the very few beings who appreciated William.
The house on the other side was a much smaller one, and was occupied by Mr. Gregorius Lambkin. Mr. Gregorius Lambkin was a very shy and rather elderly bachelor. He issued from his front door every morning at half-past eight holding a neat little attaché case in a neatly-gloved hand. He spent the day in an insurance office and returned, still unruffled and immaculate, at about half past six. Most people considered him quite dull and negligible, but he possessed the supreme virtue in William's eyes of not objecting to William. William had suffered much from unsympathetic neighbours who had taken upon themselves to object to such innocent and artistic objects as catapults and pea-shooters, and cricket balls. William had a very soft spot in his heart for Mr. Gregorius Lambkin. William spent a good deal of his time in Mr. Lambkin's garden during his absence, and Mr. Lambkin seemed to have no objection. Other people's gardens always seemed to William to be more attractive than his own—especially when he had no right of entry into them.
There was quite an excitement in the neighbourhood when the empty house was let. It was rumoured that the newcomer was a Personage. She was the President of the Society of Ancient Souls. The Society of Ancient Souls was a society of people who remembered their previous existence. The memory usually came in a flash. For instance, you might remember in a flash when you were looking at a box of matches that you had been Guy Fawkes. Or you might look at a cow and remember in a flash that you had been Nebuchadnezzar. Then you joined the Society of Ancient Souls, and paid a large subscription, and attended meetings at the house of its President in costume. And the President was coming to live next door to William. By a curious coincidence her name was Gregoria—Miss Gregoria Mush. William awaited her coming with anxiety. He had discovered that one's next-door neighbours make a great difference to one's life. They may be agreeable and not object to mouth organs and whistling and occasional stone-throwing, or they may not. They sometimes—the worst kind—go to the length of writing notes to one's father about one, and then, of course, the only course left to one is one of Revenge. But William hoped great things from Miss Gregoria Mush. There was a friendly sound about the name. On the evening of her arrival he climbed up on the roller and gazed wistfully over the fence at the territory that had once been his, but from which he was now debarred. He felt like Moses surveying the Promised Land.
Miss Gregoria Mush was walking in the garden. William watched her with bated breath. She was very long, and very thin, and very angular, and she was reading poetry out loud to herself as she trailed about in her long draperies.
"'Oh, moon of my delight....'" she declaimed, then her eye met William's. The eyes beneath her pince-nez were like little gimlets.
"How dare you stare at me, you rude boy?" she said.
"I shall write to your father," she said fiercely, and then proceeded still ferociously, "'... that knows no wane.'"
"Crumbs!" murmured William, descending slowly from his perch.
She did write to his father, and that note was the first of many. She objected to his singing, she objected to his shouting, she objected to his watching her over the wall, and she objected to his throwing sticks at her cat. She objected both verbally and in writing. This persecution was only partly compensated for by occasional glimpses of meetings of the Ancient Souls. For the Ancient Souls met in costume, and sometimes William could squeeze through the hole in the fence and watch the Ancient Souls meeting in the dining-room. Miss Gregoria Mush arrayed as Mary, Queen of Scots (one of her many previous existences) was worth watching. And always there was the garden on the other side. Mr. Gregorius Lambkin made no objections and wrote no notes. But clouds of Fate were gathering round Mr. Gregorius Lambkin. William first heard of it one day at lunch.
"I saw the old luny talking to poor little Lambkin to-day," said Robert, William's elder brother.
In these terms did Robert refer to the august President of the Society of Ancient Souls.
And the next news Robert brought home was that "poor little Lambkin" had joined the Society of Ancient Souls, but didn't seem to want to talk about it. He seemed very vague as to his previous existence, but he said that Miss Gregoria Mush was sure that he had been Julius Cæsar. The knowledge had come to her in a flash when he raised his hat and she saw his bald head.
There was a meeting of the Ancient Souls that evening, and William crept through the hole and up to the dining-room window to watch. A gorgeous scene met his eye. Noah conversed agreeably with Cleopatra in the window seat, and by the piano Napoleon discussed the Irish question with Lobengula. As William watched, his small nose flattened against a corner of the window, Nero and Dante arrived, having shared a taxi from the station. Miss Gregoria Mush, tall and gaunt and angular, presided in the robes of Mary, Queen of Scots, which was her favourite previous existence. Then Mr. Gregorius Lambkin arrived. He looked as unhappy as it is possible for man to look. He was dressed in a toga and a laurel wreath. Heat and nervousness had caused his small waxed moustache to droop. His toga was too long and his laurel wreath was crooked. Miss Gregoria Mush received him effusively. She carried him off to a corner seat near the window, and there they conversed, or, to be more accurate, she talked and he listened. The window was open and William could hear some of the things she said.
"Now you are a member you must come here often ... you and I, the only Ancient Souls in this vicinity ... we will work together and live only in the Past.... Have you remembered any other previous existence?... No? Ah, try, it will come in a flash any time.... I must come and see your garden.... I feel that we have much in common, you and I.... We have much to talk about.... I have all my past life to tell you of ... what train do you come home by?... We must be friends—real friends.... I'm sure I can help you much in your life as an Ancient Soul.... Our names are almost the same.... Fate in some way unites us...."
And Mr. Lambkin sat, miserable and dejected and yet with a certain pathetic resignation. For what can one do against Fate? Then the President caught sight of William and approached the window.
"Go away, boy!" she called. "You wicked, rude, prying boy, go away!"
Mr. Lambkin shot a wretched and apologetic glance at William, but William pressed his mouth to the open slit of the window.
"All right, Mrs. Jarley's!" he called, then turned and fled.
William met Mr. Lambkin on his way to the station the next morning. Mr. Lambkin looked thinner and there were lines of worry on his face.
"I'm sorry she sent you away, William," he said. "It must have been interesting to watch—most interesting to watch. I'd much rather have watched than—but there, it's very kind of her to take such an interest in me. Most kind. But I—however, she's very kind, very kind. She very kindly presented me with the costume. Hardly suitable, perhaps, but very kind of her. And, of course, there may be something in it. One never knows. I may have been Julius Cæsar, but I hardly think—however, one must keep an open mind. Do you know any Latin, William?"
"Jus' a bit," said William, guardedly. "I've learnt a lot, but I don't know much."
"Say some to me. It might convey something to me. One never knows. She seems so sure. Talk Latin to me, William."
"Hic, haec, hoc," said William obligingly.
Julius Cæsar's reincarnation shook his head.
"No," he said, "I'm afraid it doesn't seem to mean anything to me."
"Hunc, hanc, hoc," went on William monotonously.
"I'm afraid it's no good," said Mr. Lambkin. "I'm afraid it proves that I'm not—still one may not retain a knowledge of one's former tongue. One must keep an open mind. Of course, I'd prefer not to—but one must be fair. And she's kind, very kind."
Shaking his head sadly, the little man entered the station.
That evening William heard his father say to his mother:
"She came down to meet him at the station to-night. I'm afraid his doom is sealed. He's no power of resistance, and she's got her eye on him."
"Who's got her eye on him?" said William with interest.
"Be quiet!" said his father with the brusqueness of the male parent.
But William began to see how things stood. And William liked Mr. Lambkin.
One evening he saw from his window Mr. Gregorius Lambkin walking with Miss Gregoria Mush in Miss Gregoria Mush's garden. Mr. Gregorius Lambkin did not look happy.
William crept down to the hole in the fence and applied his ear to it.
They were sitting on a seat quite close to his hole.
"Gregorius," the President of the Society of Ancient Souls was saying, "when I found that our names were the same I knew that our destinies were interwoven."
"Yes," murmured Mr. Lambkin. "It's so kind of you, so kind. But—I'm afraid I'm overstaying my welcome. I must——"
"No. I must say what is in my heart, Gregorius. You live on the Past, I live in the Past. We have a common mission—the mission of bringing to the thoughtless and uninitiated the memory of their former lives. Gregorius, our work would be more valuable if we could do it together, if the common destiny that has united our nomenclatures could unite also our lives."
"It's so kind of you," murmured the writhing victim, "so kind. I am so unfit, I——"
"No, friend," she said kindly. "I have power enough for both. The human speech is so poor an agent, is it not?"
A door bell clanged in the house.
"Ah, the Committee of the Ancient Souls. They were coming from town to-night. Come here to-morrow night at the same time, Gregorius, and I will tell you what is in my heart. Meet me here—at this time—to-morrow evening."
William here caught sight of a stray cat at the other end of the garden. In the character of a cannibal chief he hunted the white man (otherwise the cat) with blood-curdling war-whoops, but felt no real interest in the chase. He bound up his scratches mechanically with an ink-stained handkerchief. Then he went indoors. Robert was conversing with his friend in the library.
"Well," said the friend, "it's nearly next month. Has she landed him yet?"
"By Jove!" said Robert. "First of April to-morrow!" He looked at William suspiciously. "And if you try any fool's tricks on me you'll jolly well hear about it."
"I'm not thinkin' of you," said William crushingly. "I'm not goin' to trouble with you!"
"Has she landed him?" said the friend.
"Not yet, and I heard him saying in the train that he was leaving town on the 2nd and going abroad for a holiday."
"Well, she'll probably do it yet. She's got all the 1st."
"It's bedtime, William," called his Mother.
"Thank heaven!" said Robert.
William sat gazing into the distance, not seeing or hearing.
"William!" called his mother.
"All right," said William irritably. "I'm jus' thinkin' something out."
William's family went about their ways cautiously the next morning. They watched William carefully. Robert even refused an egg at breakfast because you never knew with that little wretch. But nothing happened.
"Fancy your going on April Fool's day without making a fool of anyone," said Robert at lunch.
"It's not over, is it?—not yet," said William with the air of a sphinx.
"But it doesn't count after twelve," said Robert.
William considered deeply before he spoke, then he said slowly:
"The thing what I'm going to do counts whatever time it is."
Reluctantly, but as if drawn by a magnet, Mr. Lambkin set off to the President's house. William was in the road.
"She told me to tell you," said William unblushingly, "that she was busy to-night, an' would you mind not coming."
The tense lines of Mr. Lambkin's face relaxed.
"Oh, William," he said, "it's a great relief. I'm going away early to-morrow, but I was afraid that to-night——" he was almost hysterical with relief. "She's so kind, but I was afraid that—well, well, I can't say I'm sorry—I'd promised to come, and I couldn't break it. But I was afraid—and I hear she's sold her house and is leaving in a month, so—but she's kind—very kind."
He turned back with alacrity.
"Thanks for letting me have the clothes," said William.
"Oh, quite welcome, William. They're nice things for a boy to dress up in, no doubt. I can't say I—but she's very kind. Don't let her see you playing with them, William."
William grunted and returned to his back garden.
For some time silence reigned over the three back gardens. Then Miss Gregoria Mush emerged and came towards the seat by the fence. A figure was already seated there in the half dusk, a figure swathed in a toga with the toga drawn also over its drooping head.
"Gregorius!" said the President. "How dear of you to come in costume!"
The figure made no movement.
"You know what I have in my heart, Gregorius?"
Still no answer.
"Your heart is too full for words," she said kindly. "The thought of having your destiny linked with mine takes speech from you. But have courage, dear Gregorius. You shall work for me. We will do great things together. We will be married at the little church."
Still no answer.
"Gregorius!" she murmured tenderly:
She leant against him suddenly, and he yielded beneath the pressure with a sudden sound of dissolution. Two cushions slid to the ground, the toga fell back, revealing a broomstick with a turnip fixed firmly to the top. It bore the legend:
And from the other side of the fence came a deep sigh of satisfaction from the artist behind the scenes.