Read CHAPTER V of The Invader A Novel , free online book, by Margaret L. Woods, on

Oxford is beautiful at all times, beautiful even now, in spite of the cruel disfigurement inflicted upon her by the march of modern vulgarity, but she has three high festivals which clothe her with a special glory and crown her with their several crowns. One is the Festival of May, when her hoary walls and ancient enclosures overflow with emerald and white, rose-color and purple and gold, a foam of leafage and blossom, breaking spray-like over edges of stone, gray as sea-worn rocks. And all about the city the green meadows and groves burn with many tones of color, brilliant as enamels or as precious stones, yet of a texture softer and richer, more full of delicate shadows than any velvet mantle that ever was woven for a queen.

Another Festival comes with that strayed bacchanal October, who hangs her scarlet and wine-colored garlands on cloister and pinnacle, on wall and tower. And gradually the foliage of grove and garden, turns through shade of bluish metallic green, to the mingled splendor of pale gold and beaten bronze and deepest copper, half glowing and half drowned in the low, mellow sunlight, and purple mist of autumn.

Last comes the Festival of Mid-winter, the Festival of the Frost. The rime comes, or the snow, and the long lines of the buildings, the fret-work of stone, the battlements, carved pinnacles and images of saints or devils, stand up with clear glittering outlines, or clustered about and overhung with fantasies of ice and snow. Behind, the deep-blue sky itself seems to glitter too. The frozen floods glitter in the meadows, and every little twig on the bare trees. There is no color in the earth, but the atmosphere of the river valley clothes distant hills and trees and hedges with ultramarine vapor. Towards evening the mist climbs, faintly veiling the tall groves of elms and the piled masses of the city itself. The sunset begins to burn red behind Magdalen Tower, all the towers and aery pinnacles rise blue yet distinct against it. And this festival is not only one of nature. The glittering ice is spread over the meadows, and, everywhere from morning till moonlight, the rhythmical ring of the skate and the sound of voices sonorous with the joy of living, travel far on the frosty air. Sometimes the very rivers are frozen, and the broad, bare highway of the Thames and the tree-sheltered path of the Cherwell are alive with black figures, heel-winged like Mercury, flying swiftly on no errand, but for the mere delight of flying.

It was early on such a shining festival morning that Mildred, a willowy, brown-clad figure, came down to a piece of ice in an outlying meadow. Her shadow moved beside her in the sunshine, blue on the whiteness of the snow, which crunched crisp and thin under her feet. She carried a black bag in her hand sign of the serious skater, and her face was serious, even apprehensive. She saw with relief that except the sweepers there was no one on the ice. A row of shivering men, buttoned up to the chin in seedy coats, rose from the chairs where they awaited their appointed prey, and all yelled to her at once. She crowned the hopes of one by occupying his seat, but the important task of putting on the bladed boots she could depute to none. Tims, whom no appeal of friendship could induce to shiver on the ice, had told her that Milly was an expert skater. She was, in fact, correct and accomplished, but there was a stiffness and sense of effort about her style, a want of that appearance of free and daring abandonment to the stroke of the blade once launched, that makes the beauty of skating. Mildred knew only that she had to live up to the reputation of a mighty skater, and was not sure whether she could even stand on these knifelike edges. She laced one boot, happy in the belief that at any rate there would be no witness to her voyage of discovery. But a renewed yelling among the men made her lift her head, and there, striding swiftly over the crisp snow, came a tall, handsome young man, with a pointed, silky black beard and fine, short-sighted black eyes, aglow with the pleasure of the frosty sun.

It was Ian Stewart. The young lady whom he discovered to be Miss Flaxman just as he reached the chairs, was much more annoyed than he at the encounter. Here was an acquaintance, it seemed, and one provided with the bag and orange which Tims had warned her was the mark of the serious skater. They exchanged remarks on the weather and she went on lacing her other boot in great trepidation. The moment was come. She did not recoil from the insult of being seized under her elbows by two men and carefully planted on her feet as though she were most likely to tumble down. So far as she knew, she was likely to. But, lo! no sooner was she up than muscles and nerves, recking nothing of the brain’s blind denial, asserted their own acquaintance with the art of balance and motion. Wondering, and for a few minutes still apprehensive, but presently lost in the pleasure of the thing, Mildred began to fly over the ice. And the dark, handsome man who had taken off his cap to her became supremely unimportant. Unluckily the piece of flood-ice was not endless and she had to come back. He was circling around an orange, and she, throwing herself instinctively on to the outside edge, came down towards him in great, sweeping curves, absorbed in the delight of this motion, so new yet so perfectly under her control. Ian Stewart, perceiving that the girl was absolutely unconscious of his presence, blushed in his soul to think that he had been induced to believe himself to be of importance in her eyes.

“Miss Flaxman,” he said, skating up to her, “I see you have no orange. Can’t we skate a figure together around mine?”

“I’ve forgotten all about figures,” replied Mildred, with truth.

“Try some simple turns,” he urged. “There are plenty here,” and he held up a book in his hand like the one she had found in her own black bag. But it had “Ian Stewart, Durham College,” written clearly on the outside.

“So that’s Stewart!” thought Milly; and she could not help laughing at her own thoughts, which had created him in a different image.

Stewart did not know why she laughed, but he found the sound and sight of the laugh new and charming.

“It’s awfully kind of you to undertake my education in another branch, Mr. Stewart,” she answered, pouting, “in spite of having found out that I’m not at all clever.”

She smiled at him mutinously, sweeping towards the orange with head thrown back over her left shoulder. Momentarily the poise of her head recalled the attitude of the portrait of Lady Hammerton, beckoning her unseen companions to that far-off mysterious mountain country, where the torrents shine so whitely through the mist and the red line of sunset speaks of coming night.

Stewart colored, slightly confused. This brutal statement did not seem to him to represent the just and candid account he had given Miss Walker of Miss Flaxman’s abilities.

“Some one’s been misreporting me, I see,” he returned. “But anyhow, on the ice, Miss Flaxman, it’s you who are the Professor; I who am the pupil. So I offer you a fair revenge.”

Accordingly, Mildred soon found herself placed at a due distance from the orange, with Stewart equally distant from it on the other side. After a few minutes of extreme uneasiness, she discovered that although she had to halt at each fresh call, she had a kind of mechanical familiarity with the simple figures which he gave her.

Stewart, though learned, was human; and to sweep now at the opposite pole to his companion, now with a swing of clasping hands at the centre of their delightful dance, his eyes always perforce on his charming partner, and her eyes on him, undeniably raised the pleasure of skating to a higher power than if he had circled the orange in company with mere man.

So they fleeted the too-short time in the sparkling blue and white world, drinking the air like celestial wine.

The Festival of the Frost had fallen in the Christmas Vacation, and Oxford society in vacation is essentially different from that of Term-time, when it is overflowed by men who are but birds of passage, coming no one inquires whence, and flitting few know whither. The party that picnicked, played hockey, danced and figured on their skates through the weeks of the frost, was in those days almost like a family party. So it happened that Ian Stewart met the new Miss Flaxman in an atmosphere of friendly ease that years of term-time society would not have afforded him. How new she was he did not guess, but supposed the change to be in his own eyes. Other people, however, saw it. Her very skating was different. It had gained in grace and vigor, but she was seldom seen wooing the serious and lonely orange around which Milly had acquired the skill that Mildred now enjoyed. On the contrary, she initiated an epidemic of frivolity on the ice in the shape of waltzing and hand-in-hand figures in general.

Ian Stewart, too, neglected the orange and went in for hand-in-hand figures that season. Other things, too, he neglected; work, which he had never before allowed to suffer measurably from causes within his control; and far from blushing for his idleness, he rejoiced in it, as the surest sign of all that for him the Festival of Spring had come in the time of nature’s frost.

It was not only the crisp air, the frequent sun, the joyous flights over the ringing ice that made his blood run faster through his veins and laughter come more easily to his lips; that aroused him in the morning with a strange sense of delight, as though some spirit had awakened him with a glad reveille at the window of his soul. He, too, was in Arcady. That in itself should be sufficient joy; he knew he must restrain his impatience for more. Not till the summer, when the lady of his heart had ceased to be also his pupil, must he make avowal of his love.

Mildred on her part found Stewart the most attractive of the men with whom she was acquainted. As yet in this new existence of hers, she had not moved outside the Oxford circle a circle exceptional in England, because in it intellectual eminence, not always recognized, when recognized receives as much honor as is accorded to a great fortune or a great name in ordinary society. Stewart’s abilities were of a kind to be recognized by the Academic world. He was already known in the Universities of the Continent and America. Oxford was proud of him; and although Mildred had no desire to marry as yet, it gratified her taste and her vanity to win him for a lover.