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Chapter 28

THE RIVER


One day towards the end of August Shelton took Antonia on the river--the river that, like soft music, soothes the land; the river of the reeds and poplars, the silver swan-sails, sun and moon, woods, and the white slumbrous clouds; where cuckoos, and the wind, the pigeons, and the weirs are always singing; and in the flash of naked bodies, the play of waterlily leaves, queer goblin stumps, and the twilight faces of the twisted tree-roots, Pan lives once more.

The reach which Shelton chose was innocent of launches, champagne bottles and loud laughter; it was uncivilised, and seldom troubled by these humanising influences. He paddled slowly, silent and absorbed, watching Antonia. An unaccustomed languor clung about her; her eyes had shadows, as though she had not slept; colour glowed softly in her cheeks, her frock seemed all alight with golden radiance. She made Shelton pull into the reeds, and plucked two rounded lilies sailing like ships against slow-moving water.

"Pull into the shade, please," she said; "it's too hot out here."

The brim of her linen hat kept the sun from her face, but her head was drooping like a flower's head at noon.

Shelton saw that the heat was really harming her, as too hot a day will dim the icy freshness of a northern plant. He dipped his sculls, the ripples started out and swam in grave diminuendo till they touched the banks.

He shot the boat into a cleft, and caught the branches of an overhanging tree. The skiff rested, balancing with mutinous vibration, like a living thing.

"I should hate to live in London," said Antonia suddenly; "the slums must be so awful. What a pity, when there are places like this! But it's no good thinking."

"No," answered Shelton slowly! "I suppose it is no good."

"There are some bad cottages at the lower end of Cross Eaton. I went them one day with Miss Truecote. The people won't help themselves. It's so discouraging to help people who won't help themselves."

She was leaning her elbows on her knees, and, with her chin resting on her hands, gazed up at Shelton. All around them hung a tent of soft, thick leaves, and, below, the water was deep-dyed with green refraction. Willow boughs, swaying above the boat, caressed Antonia's arms and shoulders; her face and hair alone were free.

"So discouraging," she said again.

A silence fell.... Antonia seemed thinking deeply.

"Doubts don't help you," she said suddenly; "how can you get any good from doubts? The thing is to win victories."

"Victories?" said Shelton. "I 'd rather understand than conquer!"

He had risen to his feet, and grasped stunted branch, canting the boat towards the bank.

"How can you let things slide like that, Dick? It's like Ferrand."

"Have you such a bad opinion of him, then?" asked Shelton. He felt on the verge of some, discovery.

She buried her chin deeper in her hands.

"I liked him at first," she said; "I thought that he was different. I thought he couldn't really be--"

"Really be what?"

Antonia did not answer.

"I don't know," she said at last. "I can't explain. I thought--"

Shelton still stood, holding to the branch, and the oscillation of the boat freed an infinity of tiny ripples.

"You thought--what?" he said.

He ought to have seen her face grow younger, more childish, even timid. She said in a voice smooth, round, and young:

"You know, Dick, I do think we ought to try. I know I don't try half hard enough. It does n't do any good to think; when you think, everything seems so mixed, as if there were nothing to lay hold of. I do so hate to feel like that. It is n't as if we didn't know what's right. Sometimes I think, and think, and it 's all no good, only a waste of time, and you feel at the end as if you had been doing wrong."

Shelton frowned.

"What has n't been through fire's no good," he said; and, letting go the branch, sat down. Freed from restraint, the boat edged out towards the current. "But what about Ferrand?"

"I lay awake last night wondering what makes you like him so. He's so bitter; he makes me feel unhappy. He never seems content with anything. And he despises"--her face hardened--"I mean, he hates us all!"

"So should I if I were he," said Shelton.

The boat was drifting on, and gleams of sunlight chased across their faces. Antonia spoke again.

"He seems to be always looking at dark things, or else he seems as if--as if he could--enjoy himself too much. I thought--I thought at first," she stammered, "that we could do him good."

"Do him good! Ha, ha!"

A startled rat went swimming for its life against the stream; and Shelton saw that he had done a dreadful thing: he had let Antonia with a jerk into a secret not hitherto admitted even by himself--the secret that her eyes were not his eyes, her way of seeing things not his nor ever would be. He quickly muffled up his laughter. Antonia had dropped her gaze; her face regained its languor, but the bosom of her dress was heaving. Shelton watched her, racking his brains to find excuses for that fatal laugh; none could he find. It was a little piece of truth. He paddled slowly on, close to the bank, in the long silence of the river.

The breeze had died away, not a fish was rising; save for the lost music of the larks no birds were piping; alone, a single pigeon at brief intervals cooed from the neighbouring wood.

They did not stay much longer in the boat.

On the homeward journey in the pony-cart, rounding a corner of the road, they came on Ferrand in his pince-nez, holding a cigarette between his fingers and talking to a tramp, who was squatting on the bank. The young foreigner recognised them, and at once removed his hat.

"There he is," said Shelton, returning the salute.

Antonia bowed.

"Oh!" she, cried, when they were out of hearing, "I wish he 'd go. I can't bear to see him; it's like looking at the dark."


John Galsworthy

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