Just as Shelton was starting to walk back to Oxford he met Mr. Dennant coming from a ride. Antonia's father was a spare man of medium height, with yellowish face, grey moustache, ironical eyebrows, and some tiny crow's-feet. In his old, short grey coat, with a little slit up the middle of the back, his drab cord breeches, ancient mahogany leggings, and carefully blacked boats, he had a dry, threadbare quality not without distinction.
"Ah, Shelton!" he said, in his quietly festive voice; "glad to see the pilgrim here, at last. You're not off already?" and, laying his hand on Shelton's arm, he proposed to walk a little way with him across the fields.
This was the first time they had met since the engagement; and Shelton began to nerve himself to express some sentiment, however bald, about it. He squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and looked askance at Mr. Dennant. That gentleman was walking stiffly, his cord breeches faintly squeaking. He switched a yellow, jointed cane against his leggings, and after each blow looked at his legs satirically. He himself was rather like that yellow cane-pale, and slim, and jointed, with features arching just a little, like the arching of its handle.
"They say it'll be a bad year for fruit," Shelton said at last.
"My dear fellow, you don't know your farmer, I 'm afraid. We ought to hang some farmers--do a world of good. Dear souls! I've got some perfect strawberries."
"I suppose," said Shelton, glad to postpone the evil moment, "in a climate like this a man must grumble."
"Quite so, quite so! Look at us poor slaves of land-owners; if I couldn't abuse the farmers I should be wretched. Did you ever see anything finer than this pasture? And they want me to lower their rents!"
And Mr. Dennant's glance satirically wavered, rested on Shelton, and whisked back to the ground as though he had seen something that alarmed him. There was a pause.
"Now for it!" thought the younger man.
Mr. Dennant kept his eyes fixed on his boots.
"If they'd said, now," he remarked jocosely, "that the frost had nipped the partridges, there 'd have been some sense in it; but what can you expect? They've no consideration, dear souls!"
Shelton took a breath, and, with averted eyes, he hurriedly began:
"It's awfully hard, sir, to--"
Mr. Dennant switched his cane against his shin.
"Yes," he said, "it 's awfully hard to put up with, but what can a fellow do? One must have farmers. Why, if it was n't for the farmers, there 'd be still a hare or two about the place!"
Shelton laughed spasmodically; again he glanced askance at his future father-in-law. What did the waggling of his head mean, the deepening of his crow's-feet, the odd contraction of the mouth? And his eye caught Mr. Dennant's eye; its expression was queer above the fine, dry nose (one of the sort that reddens in a wind).
"I've never had much to do with farmers," he said at last.
"Have n't you? Lucky fellow! The most--yes, quite the most trying portion of the human species--next to daughters."
"Well, sir, you can hardly expect me--" began Shelton.
"I don't--oh, I don't! D 'you know, I really believe we're in for a ducking."
A large black cloud had covered up the sun, and some drops were spattering on Mr. Dennant's hard felt hat.
Shelton welcomed the shower; it appeared to him an intervention on the part of Providence. He would have to say something, but not now, later.
"I 'll go on," he said; "I don't mind the rain. But you'd better get back, sir."
"Dear me! I've a tenant in this cottage," said Mr. Dennant in his, leisurely, dry manner "and a beggar he is to poach, too. Least we can do 's to ask for a little shelter; what do you think?" and smiling sarcastically, as though deprecating his intention to keep dry, he rapped on the door of a prosperous-looking cottage.
It was opened by a girl of Antonia's age and height.
"Ah, Phoebe! Your father in?"
"No," replied the girl, fluttering; "father's out, Mr. Dennant."
"So sorry! Will you let us bide a bit out of the rain?"
The sweet-looking Phoebe dusted them two chairs, and, curtseying, left them in the parlour.
"What a pretty girl!" said Shelton.
"Yes, she's a pretty girl; half the young fellows are after her, but she won't leave her father. Oh, he 's a charming rascal is that fellow!"
This remark suddenly brought home to Shelton the conviction that he was further than ever from avoiding the necessity for speaking. He walked over to the window. The rain was coming down with fury, though a golden line far down the sky promised the shower's quick end. "For goodness' sake," he thought, "let me say something, however idiotic, and get it over!" But he did not turn; a kind of paralysis had seized on him.
"Tremendous heavy rain!" he said at last; "coming down in waterspouts."
It would have been just as easy to say: "I believe your daughter to be the sweetest thing on earth; I love her, and I 'm going to make her happy!" Just as easy, just about the same amount of breath required; but he couldn't say it! He watched the rain stream and hiss against the leaves and churn the dust on the parched road with its insistent torrent; and he noticed with precision all the details of the process going on outside how the raindrops darted at the leaves like spears, and how the leaves shook themselves free a hundred times a minute, while little runnels of water, ice-clear, rolled over their edges, soft and quick. He noticed, too, the mournful head of a sheltering cow that was chewing at the hedge.
Mr. Dennant had not replied to his remark about the rain. So disconcerting was this silence that Shelton turned. His future father-in-law, upon his wooden chair, was staring at his well-blacked boots, bending forward above his parted knees, and prodding at the carpet; a glimpse at his face disturbed Shelton's resolution. It was not forbidding, stern, discouraging--not in the least; it had merely for the moment ceased to look satirical. This was so startling that Shelton lost his chance of speaking. There seemed a heart to Mr. Dennant's gravity; as though for once he were looking grave because he felt so. But glancing up at Shelton, his dry jocosity reappeared at once.
"What a day for ducks!" he said; and again there was unmistakable alarm about the eye. Was it possible that he, too, dreaded something?
"I can't express--" began Shelton hurriedly.
"Yes, it's beastly to get wet," said Mr. Dennant, and he sang--
"For we can wrestle and fight, my boys, And jump out anywhere."
"You 'll be with us for that dinner-party next week, eh? Capital! There's the Bishop of Blumenthal and old Sir Jack Buckwell; I must get my wife to put you between them--"
"For it's my delight of a starry night--"
"The Bishop's a great anti-divorce man, and old Buckwell 's been in the court at least twice--"
"In the season of the year!"
"Will you please to take some tea, gentlemen?" said the voice of Phoebe in the doorway.
"No, thank you, Phoebe. That girl ought to get married," went on Mr. Dennant, as Phoebe blushingly withdrew. A flush showed queerly on his sallow cheeks. "A shame to keep her tied like this to her father's apron-strings--selfish fellow, that!" He looked up sharply, as if he had made a dangerous remark.
The keeper he was watching us, For him we did n't care!
Shelton suddenly felt certain that Antonia's father was just as anxious to say something expressive of his feelings, and as unable as himself. And this was comforting.
"You know, sir--" he began.
But Mr. Dennant's eyebrows rose, his crow's-feet twinkled; his personality seemed to shrink together.
"By Jove!" he said, "it's stopped! Now's our chance! Come along, my dear fellow; delays are dangerous!" and with his bantering courtesy he held the door for Shelton to pass out. "I think we'll part here," he said--"I almost think so. Good luck to you!"
He held out his dry, yellow hand. Shelton seized it, wrung it hard, and muttered the word:
Again Mr. Dennant's eyebrows quivered as if they had been tweaked; he had been found out, and he disliked it. The colour in his face had died away; it was calm, wrinkled, dead-looking under the flattened, narrow brim of his black hat; his grey moustache drooped thinly; the crow's-feet hardened round his eyes; his nostrils were distended by the queerest smile.
"Gratitude!" he said; "almost a vice, is n't it? Good-night!"
Shelton's face quivered; he raised his hat, and, turning as abruptly as his senior, proceeded on his way. He had been playing in a comedy that could only have been played in England. He could afford to smile now at his past discomfort, having no longer the sense of duty unfulfilled. Everything had been said that was right and proper to be said, in the way that we such things should say. No violence had been done; he could afford to smile--smile at himself, at Mr. Dennant, at to-morrow; smile at the sweet aroma of the earth, the shy, unwilling sweetness that only rain brings forth.
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