'Mr. Angus, what is an egotist?'
'Don't you know, Miss Meredith?'
'Well, I know in a general sort of way, but not precisely.'
'An egotist is a person who—but why do you want to know?'
'Because just now Mr. Abinger asked me what I was thinking of, and when I said of nothing he called me an egotist.'
'Ah! that kind of egotist is one whose thoughts are too deep for utterance.'
It was twilight. Rob stood on the deck of the house-boat Tawny Owl, looking down at Nell, who sat in the stern, her mother beside her, amid a blaze of Chinese lanterns. Dick lay near them, prone, as he had fallen from a hammock whose one flaw was that it gave way when any one got into it. Mr. Meredith, looking out from one of the saloon windows across the black water that was now streaked with glistening silver, wondered whether he was enjoying himself, and Mary, in a little blue nautical jacket with a cap to match, lay back in a camp-chair on deck with a silent banjo in her hands. Rob was brazening it out in flannels, and had been at such pains to select colours to suit him that the effect was atrocious. He had spent several afternoons at Molesey during the three weeks the Tawny Owl had lain there, but this time he was to remain overnight at the Island Hotel.
The Tawny Owl was part of the hoop of house-boats that almost girded Tagg's Island, and lights sailed through the trees, telling of launches moving to their moorings near the ferry. Now and again there was the echo of music from a distant house-boat. For a moment the water was loquacious as dingeys or punts shot past. Canadian canoes, the ghosts that haunt the Thames by night, lifted their heads out of the river, gaped, and were gone. An osier-wand dipped into the water under a weight of swallows, all going to bed together. The boy on the next house-boat kissed his hand to a broom on board the Tawny Owl, taking it for Mrs. Meredith's servant, and then retired to his kitchen smiling. From the boat-house across the river came the monotonous tap of a hammer. A reed-warbler rushed through his song. There was a soft splashing along the bank.
'There was once a literary character,' Dick murmured, 'who said that to think of nothing was an impossibility, but he lived before the days of house-boats. I came here a week ago to do some high thinking, and I believe I have only managed four thoughts—first, that the cow on the island is an irate cow; second, that in summer the sun shines brightly; third, that the trouble of lighting a cigar is almost as great as the pleasure of smoking it; and fourth, that swans—the fourth thought referred to swans, but it has slipped my memory.'
He yawned like a man glad to get to the end of his sentence, or sorry that he had begun it.
'But I thought,' said Mrs. Meredith, 'that the reason you walk round and round the island by yourself so frequently is because you can think out articles on it?'
'Yes,' Dick answered, 'the island looks like a capital place to think on, and I always start off on my round meaning to think hard. After that all is a blank till I am back at the Tawny Owl, when I remember that I have forgotten to think.'
'Will ought to enjoy this,' remarked Nell.
'That is my brother, Mr. Angus,' Mary said to Rob; 'he is to spend part of his holidays here.'
'I remember him,' Rob answered, smiling. Mary blushed, however, remembering that the last time Will and Greybrooke met Rob there had been a little scene.
'He will enjoy the fishing,' said Dick. 'I have only fished myself three or four times, and I am confident I hooked a minnow yesterday.'
'I saw a little boy,' Nell said, 'fishing from the island to-day, and his mother had strapped him to a tree in case he might fall in.'
'When I saw your young brother at Silchester,' Rob said to Mary, 'he had a schoolmate with him.'
'Ah, yes,' Dick said; 'that was the man who wanted to horsewhip you, you know.'
'I thought he and Miss Meredith were great friends,' Rob retorted. He sometimes wondered how much Dick cared for Nell.
'It was only the young gentleman's good-nature,' Abinger explained, while Nell drew herself up indignantly; 'he found that he had to give up either Nell or a cricket match, and so Nell was reluctantly dropped.'
'That was not how you spoke,' Nell said to Dick in a low voice, 'when I told you all about him, poor boy, in your chambers.'
'You promised to be a sister to him, I think,' remarked Abinger. 'Ah, Nell, it is not a safe plan that. How many brothers have you now?'
Dick held up his hand for Mary's banjo, and, settling himself comfortably in a corner, twanged and sang, while the lanterns caught myriads of flies, and the bats came and went.
When Cœlebs was a bolder blade,
And ladies fair were coy,
His search was for a wife, he said,
The time I was a boy.
But Cœlebs now has slothful grown
(I learn this from her mother),
Instead of making her his own,
He asks to be her brother.
Last night I saw her smooth his brow,
He bent his head and kissed her;
They understand each other now,
She's going to be his sister.
Some say he really does propose,
And means to gain or lose all,
And that the new arrangement goes,
To soften her refusal.
He talks so wild of broken hearts,
Of futures that she'll mar,
He says on Tuesday he departs
For Cork or Zanzibar.
His death he places at her door,
Yet says he won't resent it;
Ah, well, he talked that way before,
And very seldom meant it.
Engagements now are curious things,
'A kind of understandin','
Although they do not run to rings,
They're good to keep your hand in.
No rivals now, Tom, Dick, and Hal,
They all love one another,
For she's a sister to them all,
And every one's her brother.
In former days when men proposed,
And ladies said them No,
The laws that courtesy imposed
Made lovers pack and go.
But now that they may brothers be,
So changed the way of men is,
That, having kissed, the swain and she
Resume their game at tennis.
Ah, Nelly Meredith, you may
Be wiser than your mother,
But she knew what to do when they
Proposed to be her brother.
Of these relations best have none,
They'll only you encumber;
Of wives a man may have but one,
Of sisters any number.
Dick disappeared into the kitchen with Mrs. Meredith to show her how they make a salad at the Wigwam, and Nell and her father went a-fishing from a bedroom window. The night was so silent now that Rob and Mary seemed to have it to themselves. A canoe in a blaze of coloured light drifted past without a sound. The grass on the bank parted, and water-rats peeped out. All at once Mary had nothing to say, and Rob shook on his stool. The moon was out looking at them.
'Oh,' Mary cried, as something dipped suddenly in the water near them.
'It was only a dabchick,' Rob guessed, looking over the rail.
'What is a dabchick?' asked Mary.
Rob did not tell her. She had not the least desire to know.
In the river, on the opposite side from where the Tawny Owl lay, a stream drowns itself. They had not known of its existence before, but it was roaring like a lasher to them now. Mary shuddered slightly, turning her face to the island, and Rob took a great breath as he looked at her. His hand held her brown sunshade that was ribbed with velvet, the sunshade with the preposterous handle that Mary held upside down. Other ladies carried their sunshades so, and Rob resented it. Her back was toward him, and he sat still, gazing at the loose blue jacket that only reached her waist. It was such a slender waist that Rob trembled for it.
The trees that hung over the house-boat were black, but the moon made a fairyland of the sward beyond. Mary could only see the island between heavy branches, but she looked straight before her until tears dimmed her eyes. Who would dare to seek the thoughts of a girl at such a moment? Rob moved nearer her. Her blue cap was tilted back, her chin rested on the rail. All that was good in him was astir when she turned and read his face.
'I think I shall go down now,' Mary said, becoming less pale as she spoke. Rob's eyes followed her as she moved toward the ladder.
'Not yet,' he called after her, and could say no more. It was always so when they were alone; and he made himself suffer for it afterwards.
Mary stood irresolutely at the top of the ladder. She would not turn back, but she did not descend. Mr. Meredith was fishing lazily from the lower deck, and there was a murmur of voices in the saloon. On the road running parallel to the river traps and men were shadows creeping along to Hampton. Lights were going out there. Mary looked up the stretch of water and sighed.
'Was there ever so beautiful a night?' she said.
'Yes,' said Rob, at her elbow, 'once at Dome Castle, the night I saw you first.'
'I don't remember,' said Mary hastily, but without going down the ladder.
'I might never have met you,' Rob continued grimly, 'if some man in Silchester had not murdered his wife.'
Mary started and looked up at him. Until she ceased to look he could not go on.
'The murder,' he explained, 'was of more importance than Colonel Abinger's dinner, and so I was sent to the castle. It is rather curious to trace these things back a step. The woman enraged her husband into striking her, because she had not prepared his supper. Instead of doing that she had been gossiping with a neighbour, who would not have had time for gossip had she not been laid up with a sprained ankle. It came out in the evidence that this woman had hurt herself by slipping on a marble, so that I might never have seen you had not two boys, whom neither of us ever heard of, challenged each other to a game at marbles.'
'It was stranger that we should meet again in London,' Mary said.
'No,' Rob answered, 'the way we met was strange, but I was expecting you.'
Mary pondered how she should take this, and then pretended not to hear it.
'Was it not rather The Scorn of Scorns that made us know each other?' she asked.
'I knew you after I read it a second time,' he said; 'I have got that copy of it still.'
'You said you had the card.'
'I have never been able to understand,' Rob answered, 'how I lost that card. But,' he added sharply, 'how do you know that I lost it?'
Mary glanced up again.
'I hate being asked questions, Mr. Angus,' she said sweetly.
'Do you remember,' Rob went on, 'saying in that book that men were not to be trusted until they reached their second childhood?'
'I don't know,' Mary replied, laughing, 'that they are to be trusted even then.'
'I should think,' said Rob, rather anxiously, 'that a woman might as well marry a man in his first childhood as in his second. Surely the golden mean——' Rob paused. He was just twenty-seven.
'We should strike the golden mean, you think?' asked Mary demurely. 'But you see it is of such short duration.'
After that there was such a long pause that Mary could easily have gone down the ladder had she wanted to do so.
'I am glad that you and Dick are such friends,' she said at last.
'Why?' asked Rob quickly.
'Oh, well,' said Mary.
'He has been the best friend I have ever made,' Rob continued warmly, 'though he says our only point in common is a hatred of rice pudding.'
'He told me,' said Mary, 'that you write on politics in the Wire.'
'I do a little now, but I have never met any one yet who admitted that he had read my articles. Even your brother won't go so far as that.'
'I have read several of them,' said Mary.
'Have you?' Rob exclaimed, like a big boy.
'Yes,' Mary answered severely; 'but I don't agree with them. I am a Conservative, you know.'
She pursed up her mouth complacently as she spoke, and Rob fell back a step to prevent his going a step closer. He could hear Mr. Meredith's line tearing the water. The boy on the next house-boat was baling the dingey, and whistling a doleful ditty between each canful.
'There will never be such a night again,' Rob said, in a melancholy voice. Then he waited for Mary to ask why, when he would have told her, but she did not ask.
'At least, not to me,' he continued, after a pause, 'for I am not likely to be here again. But there may be many such nights to you.'
Mary was unbuttoning her gloves and then buttoning them again. There is something uncanny about a woman who has a chance to speak and does not take it.
'I am glad to hear,' said Rob, 'that my being away will make no difference to you.'
A light was running along the road to Hampton Court, and Mary watched it.
'Are you glad?' asked Rob desperately.
'You said I was,' answered Mary, without turning her head. Dick was thrumming the banjo below. Her hand touched a camp-chair, and Rob put his over it. He would have liked to stand like that and talk about things in general now.
'Mary,' said Rob.
The boy ceased to whistle. All nature in that quarter was paralysed, except the tumble of water across the river. Mary withdrew her hand, but said nothing. Rob held his breath. He had not even the excuse of having spoken impulsively, for he had been meditating saying it for weeks.
By and by the world began to move again. The boy whistled. A swallow tried another twig. A moor-hen splashed in the river. They had thought it over, and meant to let it pass.
'Are you angry with me?' Rob asked.
Mary nodded her head, but did not speak. Suddenly Rob started.
'You are crying,' he said.
'No, I'm not,' said Mary, looking up now.
There was a strange light in her face that made Rob shake. He was so near her that his hands touched her jacket. At that moment there was a sound of feet on the plank that communicated between the Tawny Owl and the island, and Dick called out—
'You people up there, are you coming once round the island before you have something to eat?'
Rob muttered a reply that Dick fortunately did not catch, but Mary answered 'Yes,' and they descended the ladder.
'You had better put a shawl over your shoulders,' said Rob, in rather a lordly tone.
'No,' Mary answered, thrusting away the shawl he produced from the saloon; 'a wrap on a night like this would be absurd.'
Something caught in her throat at that moment, and she coughed. Rob looked at her anxiously.
'You had better,' he said, putting the shawl over her shoulders.
'No,' said Mary, flinging it off.
'Yes,' said Rob, putting it on again.
Mary stamped her foot.
'How dare you, Mr. Angus?' she exclaimed.
Rob's chest heaved.
'You must do as you are told,' he said.
Mary looked at him while he looked at her, but she did not take off the shawl again, and that was the great moment of Rob's life.
The others had gone on before. Although it was a white night the plank was dark in shadow, and as she stepped off it she slipped back. Rob's arm went round her for a moment. They walked round the island together behind the others, but neither uttered a word. Rob was afraid even to look at her, so he did not see that Mary looked once or twice at him.
Long after he was supposed to be in the hotel Rob was still walking round the island, with no one to see him but the cow. All the Chinese lanterns were out now, but red window-blinds shone warm in several house-boats, and a terrier barked at his footsteps. The grass was silver-tipped, as in an enchanted island, and the impatient fairies might only have been waiting till he was gone. He was wondering if she was offended. While he paced the island she might be vowing never to look at him again, but perhaps she was only thinking that he was very much improved.
At last Rob wandered to the hotel, and reaching his bedroom sat down on a chair to think it out again by candle-light. He rose and opened the window. There was a notice over the mantelpiece announcing that smoking was not allowed in the bedrooms, and having read it thoughtfully he filled his pipe. A piece of crumpled paper lay beneath the dressing-table, and he lifted it up to make a spill of it. It was part of an envelope, and it floated out of Rob's hand as he read the address in Mary Abinger's handwriting, 'Sir Clement Dowton, Island Hotel.'