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Chapter 14


A punt and a rowing-boat were racing lazily toward Sunbury on a day so bright that you might have passed women with their hair in long curls and forgiven them.

'I say, Dick,' said one of the scullers, 'are they engaged?'

Will was the speaker, and in asking the question he caught a crab. Mary, with her yellow sleeves turned up at the wrist, a great straw hat on her head, ran gaily after her pole, and the punt jerked past. If there are any plain girls let them take to punting and be beautiful.

Dick, who was paddling rather than pulling stroke, turned round on his young brother sharply.

'Whom do you mean?' he asked, speaking low, so that the other occupants of the boat should not hear him, 'Mary and Dowton?'

'No,' said Will, 'Mary and Angus. I wonder what they see in her.'

They were bound for a picnicking resort up the river; Mrs. Meredith, Mary, and Sir Clement in the punt, and the others in the boat. If Rob was engaged he took it gloomily. He sat in the stern with Mr. Meredith, while Nell hid herself away beneath a many-coloured umbrella in the prow; and when he steered the boat into a gondola, he only said vacantly to its occupants, 'It is nothing at all,' as if they had run into him. Nell's father said something about not liking the appearance of the sky, and Rob looked at him earnestly for such a length of time before replying that Mr. Meredith was taken aback. At times the punt came alongside, and Mary addressed every one in the boat except Rob. The only person in the punt whom Rob never looked at was Mary. Dick watched them uneasily, and noticed that once, when Mary nearly followed her pole into the water, Rob, who seemed to be looking in the opposite direction, was the first to see what had happened. Then Dick pulled so savagely that he turned the boat round.

That morning at breakfast in his chambers Rob had no thought of spending the day on the river. He had to be at the Wire office at ten o'clock in the evening, and during the day he meant to finish one of the many articles which he still wrote for other journals that would seldom take them. The knowledge that Sir Clement Dowton had been to Molesey disquieted him, chiefly because Mary Abinger had said nothing about it. Having given himself fifty reasons for her reticence, he pushed them from him, and vowed wearily that he would go to the house-boat no more. Then Dick walked in to suggest that they might run down for an hour or two to Molesey, and Rob agreed at once. He shaped out in the train a subtle question about Sir Clement that he intended asking Mary, but on reaching the plank he saw her feeding the swans, with the baronet by her side. Rob felt like a conjurer whose trick has not worked properly. Giving himself just half a minute to reflect that it was all over, he affected the coldly courteous, and smiled in a way that was meant to be heart-rending. Mary did not mind that, but it annoyed her to see the band of his necktie slipping over his collar.

It was the day of the Sunbury Regatta, but the party from the Tawny Owl twisted past the racers, leaving Dick, who wanted a newspaper, behind. When he rejoined them beyond the village, the boat was towing the punt.

'Why,' said Dick, in some astonishment to Rob, who was rowing now, 'I did not know you could scull like that.'

'I have been practising a little,' answered Rob.

'When he came down here the first time,' Mrs. Meredith explained to Sir Clement, 'he did not know how to hold an oar. I am afraid he is one of those men who like to be best at everything.'

'He certainly knows how to scull now,' admitted the baronet, beginning to think that Rob was perhaps a dangerous man. Sir Clement was a manly gentleman, but his politics were that people should not climb out of the station they were born into.

'No,' Dick said, in answer to a question from Mr. Meredith, 'I could only get a local paper. The woman seemed surprised at my thinking she would take in the Scalping Knife or the Wire, and said, "We've got a paper of our own."'

'Read out the news to us, Richard,' suggested Mrs. Meredith. Dick hesitated.

'Here, Will,' he said to his brother, 'you got that squeaky voice of yours specially to proclaim the news from a boat to a punt ten yards distant. Angus is longing to pull us up the river unaided.'

Will turned the paper round and round.

'Here is a funny thing,' he bawled out, 'about a stick. "A curious story, says a London correspondent, is going the round of the clubs to-day about the walking-stick of a well-known member of Parliament, whose name I am not at liberty to mention. The story has not, so far as I am aware, yet appeared in print, and it conveys a lesson to all persons who carry walking-sticks with knobs for handles, which generate a peculiar disease in the palm of the hand. The member of Parliament referred to, with whom I am on intimate terms——"'

Rob looked at Dick, and they both groaned.

'My stick again,' murmured Rob.

'Read something else,' cried Dick, shivering.

'Eh, what is wrong?' asked Mr. Meredith.

'You must know,' said Dick, 'that the first time I met Angus he told me imprudently some foolish story about a stick that bred a disease in the owner's hand, owing to his pressing so heavily on the ball it had by way of a handle. I touched the story up a little, and made half a guinea out of it. Since then that note has been turning up in a new dress in the most unlikely places. First the London correspondents swooped down on it, and telegraphed it all over the country as something that had happened to well-known Cabinet Ministers. It appeared in the Paris Figaro as a true story about Sir Gladstone, and soon afterwards it was across the Channel as a reminiscence of Thiers. Having done another tour of the provinces, it was taken to America by a lecturer, who exhibited the stick. Next it travelled the Continent, until it was sent home again by Paterfamilias Abroad, writing to the Times, who said that the man who owned the stick was a well-known Alpine guide. Since then we have heard of it fitfully as doing well in Melbourne and Arkansas. It figured in the last volume, or rather two volumes, of autobiography published, and now, you see, it is going the round of the clubs again, preparatory to starting on another tour. I wish you had kept your stick to yourself, Angus.'

'That story will never die,' Rob said, in a tone of conviction. 'It will go round and round the world till the crack of doom. Our children's children will tell it to each other.'

'Yes,' said Dick, 'and say it happened to a friend of theirs.'

A field falls into the river above Sunbury, in which there is a clump of trees of which many boating parties know. Under the shadow of these Mrs. Meredith cast a table-cloth and pegged it down with salt-cellars.

'As we are rather in a hurry,' she said to the gentlemen, 'I should prefer you not to help us.'

Rob wandered to the river-side with Will, who would have liked to know whether he could jump a gate without putting his hands on it; and the other men leant against the trees, wondering a little, perhaps, why ladies enjoy in the summer-time making chairs and tables of the ground.

Rob was recovering from his scare, and made friends with Mary's young brother. By particular request he not only leapt the gate, but lifted it off its hinges, and this feat of strength so impressed Will that he would have brought the whole party down to see it done. Will was as fond of Mary as a proper respect for himself would allow, but he thought she would be a lucky girl if she got a fellow who could play with a heavy gate like that.

Being a sharp boy, Will noticed a cloud settle on Rob's face, and looking toward the clump of trees, he observed that Mary and the baronet were no longer there. In the next field two figures were disappearing, the taller, a man in a tennis jacket, carrying a pail. Sir Clement had been sent for water, and Mary had gone with him to show him the spring. Rob stared after them; and if Will could have got hold of Mary he would have shaken her for spoiling everything.

Mrs. Meredith was meditating sending some one to the spring to show them the way back, when Sir Clement and Mary again came into sight. They did not seem to be saying much, yet were so engrossed that they zigzagged toward the rest of the party like persons seeking their destination in a mist. Just as they reached the trees Mary looked up so softly at her companion that Rob turned away in an agony.

'It is a long way to the spring,' were Mary's first words, as if she expected to be taken to task for their lengthened absence.

'So it seems,' said Dick.

The baronet crossed with the pail to Mrs. Meredith, and stopped half-way like one waking from a dream. Mrs. Meredith held out her hand for the pail, and the baronet stammered with vexation. Simultaneously the whole party saw what was wrong, but Will only was so merciless as to put the discovery into words.

'Why,' cried the boy, pausing to whistle in the middle of his sentence, 'you have forgotten the water!'

It was true. The pail was empty. Sir Clement turned it upside down, and made a seat of it.

'I am so sorry,' he said to Mrs. Meredith, trying to speak lightly. 'I assure you I thought I had filled the pail at the spring. It is entirely my fault, for I told Miss Abinger I had done so.'

Mary's face was turned from the others, so that they could not see how she took the incident. It gave them so much to think of that Will was the only one of the whole party who saw its ridiculous aspect.

'Put it down to sunstroke, Miss Meredith,' the baronet said to Nell; 'I shall never allow myself to be placed in a position of trust again.'

'Does that mean,' asked Dick, 'that you object to being sent back again to the spring?'

'Ah, I forgot,' said Sir Clement. 'You may depend on me this time.'

He seized the pail once more, glad to get away by himself to some place where he could denounce his stupidity unheard, but Mrs. Meredith would not let him go. As for Mary, she was looking so haughty now that no one would have dared to mention the pail again.

During the meal Dick felt compelled to talk so much that he was unusually dull company for the remainder of the week. The others were only genial now and again. Sir Clement sought in vain to gather from Mary's eyes that she had forgiven him for making the rest of the party couple him and her in their thoughts. Mrs. Meredith would have liked to take her daughter aside and discuss the situation, and Nell was looking covertly at Rob, who, she thought, bore it bravely. Rob had lately learned carving from a handbook, and was dissecting a fowl, murmuring to himself, 'Cut from a to b along the line f g, taking care to sever the wing at the point k.' Like all the others, he thought that Mary had promised to be the baronet's wife, and Nell's heart palpitated for him when she saw how gently he passed Sir Clement the mustard. Such a load lay on Rob that he felt suffocated. Nell noticed indignantly that Mary was not even 'nice' to him. For the first time in her life, or at least for several weeks, Miss Meredith was wroth with Miss Abinger. Mary might have been on the rack, but she went on proudly eating bread and chicken. Relieved of his fears, Dick raged internally at Mary for treating Angus cruelly, and Nell, who had always dreaded lest things should not go as they had gone, sat sorrowfully because she had not been disappointed. They all knew how much they cared for Rob now, all except Mary of the stony heart.

Sir Clement began to tell some travellers' tales, omitting many things that were creditable to his bravery, and Rob found himself listening with a show of interest, wondering a little at his own audacity in competing with such a candidate. By and by some members of the little party drifted away from the others, and an accident left Mary and Rob together. Mary was aimlessly plucking the berries from a twig in her hand, and all the sign she gave that she knew of Rob's presence was in not raising her head. If love is ever unselfish his was at that moment. He took a step forward, and then Mary, starting back, looked round hurriedly in the direction of Sir Clement. What Rob thought was her meaning flashed through him, and he stood still in pain.

'I am sorry you think so meanly of me,' he said, and passed on. He did not see Mary's arms rise involuntarily, as if they would call him back. But even then she did not realise what Rob's thoughts were. A few yards away Rob, moving blindly, struck against Dick.

'Ah, I see Mary there,' her brother said, 'I want to speak to her. Why, how white you are, man!'

'Abinger,' Rob answered hoarsely, 'tell me. I must know. Is she engaged to Dowton?'

Dick hesitated. He felt sore for Rob. 'Yes, she is,' he replied. 'You remember I spoke of this to you before.' Then Dick moved on to have it out with Mary. She was standing with the twig in her hand, just as Rob had left her.

'Mary,' said her brother bluntly, 'this is too bad. I would have expected it from any one sooner than from you.'

'What are you talking about?' asked Mary frigidly.

'I am talking about Angus, my friend. Yes, you may smile, but it is not play to him.'

'What have I done to your friend?' said Mary, looking Dick in the face.

'You have crushed the life for the time being out of as fine a fellow as I ever knew. You might at least have amused yourself with some one a little more experienced in the ways of women.'

'How dare you, Dick!' exclaimed Mary, stamping her foot. All at once Dick saw that though she spoke bravely her lips were trembling. A sudden fear seized him.

'I presume that you are engaged to Dowton?' he said quickly.

'It is presumption certainly,' replied Mary.

'Why, what else could any one think after that ridiculous affair of the water?'

'I shall never forgive him for that,' Mary said, flushing.

'But he——'

'No. Yes, he did, but we are not engaged.'

'You mean to say that you refused him?'


Dick thought it over, tapping the while on a tree-trunk like a woodpecker.

'Why?' he asked at last.

Mary shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing.

'You seemed exceedingly friendly,' said Dick, 'when you returned here together.'

'I suppose,' Mary said bitterly, 'that the proper thing in the circumstances would have been to wound his feelings unnecessarily as much as possible?'

'Forgive me, dear,' Dick said kindly; 'of course I misunderstood—but this will be a blow to our father.'

Mary looked troubled.

'I could not marry him, you know, Dick,' she faltered.

'Certainly not,' Dick said, 'if you don't care sufficiently for him; and yet he seems a man that a girl might care for.'

'Oh, he is,' Mary exclaimed. 'He was so manly and kind that I wanted to be nice to him.'

'You have evidently made up your mind, sister mine,' Dick said, 'to die a spinster.'

'Yes,' said Mary, with a white face.

Suddenly Dick took both her hands, and looked her in the face.

'Do you care for any other person, Mary?' he asked sharply.

Mary shook her head, but she did not return her brother's gaze. Her hands were trembling. She tried to pull them from him, but he held her firmly until she looked at him. Then she drew up her head proudly. Her hands ceased to shake. She had become marble again.

Dick was not deceived. He dropped her hands, and leant despondently against a tree.

'Angus——' he began.

'You must not,' Mary cried; and he stopped abruptly.

'It is worse than I could have feared,' Dick said.

'No, it is not,' said Mary quickly. 'It is nothing. I don't know what you mean.'

'It was my fault bringing you together. I should have been more——'

'No, it was not. I met him before. Whom are you speaking about?'

'Think of our father, Mary.'

'Oh, I have!'

'He is not like you. How could he dare——'

'Dick, don't.'

Will bounced towards them with a hop, step, and jump, and Mrs. Meredith was signalling that she wanted both.

'Never speak of this again,' Mary said in a low voice to Dick as they walked toward the others.

'I hope I shall never feel forced to do so,' Dick replied.

'You will not,' Mary said, in her haste. 'But, Dick,' she added anxiously, 'surely the others did not think what you thought? It would be so unpleasant for Sir Clement.'

'Well, I can't say,' Dick answered.

'At all events, he did not?'

'Who is he?'

'Oh, Dick, I mean Mr. Angus?'

Dick bit his lip, and would have replied angrily; but perhaps he loved this sister of his more than any other person in the world.

'Angus, I suppose, noticed nothing,' he answered, in order to save Mary pain, 'except that you and Dowton seemed very good friends.'

Dick knew that this was untrue. He did not remember then that the good-natured lies live for ever like the others.

Evening came on before they returned to the river, and Sunbury, now blazing with fireworks, was shooting flaming arrows at the sky. The sweep of water at the village was one broad bridge of boats, lighted by torches and Chinese lanterns of every hue. Stars broke overhead, and fell in showers. It was only possible to creep ahead by pulling in the oars and holding on to the stream of craft of all kinds that moved along by inches. Rob, who was punting Dick and Mary, had to lay down his pole and adopt the same tactics, but boat and punt were driven apart, and soon tangled hopelessly in different knots.

'It is nearly eight o'clock,' Dick said, after he had given up looking for the rest of the party. 'You must not lose your train, Angus.'

'I thought you were to stay overnight, Mr. Angus,' Mary said.

Possibly she meant that had she known he had to return to London, she would have begun to treat him better earlier in the day, but Rob thought she only wanted to be polite for the last time.

'I have to be at the Wire,' he replied, 'before ten.'

Mary, who had not much patience with business, and fancied that it could always be deferred until next day if one wanted to defer it very much, said, 'Oh!' and then asked, 'Is there not a train that would suit from Sunbury?'

Rob, blinder now than ever, thought that she wanted to get rid of him.

'If I could catch the 8.15 here,' he said, 'I would reach Waterloo before half-past nine.'

'What do you think?' asked Dick. 'There is no time to lose.'

Rob waited for Mary to speak, but she said nothing.

'I had better try it,' he said.

With difficulty the punt was brought near a landing-stage, and Rob jumped out.

'Good-bye,' he said to Mary.

'Good-night,' she replied. Her mouth was quivering, but how could he know?

'Wait a moment,' Dick exclaimed. 'We might see him off, Mary?' Mary hesitated.

'The others might wonder what had become of us,' she said.

'Oh, we need not attempt to look for them in this maze,' her brother answered. 'We shall only meet them again at the Tawny Owl.'

The punt was left in charge of a boatman, and the three set off silently for the station, Mary walking between the two men. They might have been soldiers guarding a deserter.

What were Mary's feelings? She did not fully realise as yet that Rob thought she was engaged to Dowton. She fancied that he was sulky because a circumstance of which he knew nothing made her wish to treat Sir Clement with more than usual consideration; and now she thought that Rob, having brought it on himself, deserved to remain miserable until he saw that it was entirely his own fault. But she only wanted to be cruel to him now to forgive him for it afterwards.

Rob had ceased to ask himself if it was possible that she had not promised to be Dowton's wife. His anger had passed away. Her tender heart, he thought, made her wish to be good to him—for the last time.

As for Dick, he read the thoughts of both, and inwardly called himself a villain for not reading them out aloud. Yet by his merely remaining silent these two lovers would probably never meet again, and was not that what would be best for Mary?

Rob leant out of the carriage window to say good-bye, and Dick, ill at ease, turned his back on the train. It had been a hard day for Mary, and, as Rob pressed her hand warmly, a film came over her eyes. Rob saw it, and still he thought that she was only sorry for him. There are far better and nobler things than loving a woman and getting her, but Rob wanted Mary to know, by the last look he gave her, that so long as it meant her happiness his misery was only an unusual form of joy.

James M. Barrie

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