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Chapter 26

Beyond the kitchen-garden a raised causeway led into the Bawtry road, between an old drain of the Tome River and a narrower ditch running down to the parsonage duck-pond. The ditch as a rule was dry, or almost dry, being fed through a sluice in the embankment from time to time when the waters of the duck-pond needed replenishing.

Half an hour later, as William Wright--who had business at Bawtry-- left the yard by the small gate and came stepping briskly by the pond, Johnny Whitelamb pushed through the hedge at the end of the kitchen-garden, attempted a flying leap across the ditch and scrambled--with one leg plastered in mud to the knee--up to the causeway, where he stood waving his arms like a windmill and uttering sounds as rapid as they were incoherent.

The plumber, catching sight of this agitated figure on the path ahead, stood still for a moment. He understood neither the noises nor the uncouth gestures, but made sure that some accident had happened.

"Here, what's wrong?" he demanded, moving on and coming to a halt again in front of Johnny.

But still Johnny gurgled and choked. "You--you mustn't come here!"

"Eh, why not? What's doing?"

"You mustn't come here. You sha'n't--it's worse than murder! P-promise me you won't come here again!"

Mr. Wright began to understand, and his eye twinkled. "Who's to prevent it, now?"

"I will, if you w-won't listen to reason. You are killing her, between you: you don't know w-what wickedness you're doing. She's--she's an angel."

"Bravo, my lad! So she is, every inch of her." The plumber held out his hand.

Johnny drew his away indignantly and began to choke again. "She's not for you. It'll all come right if you stay away. P-promise me you'll stay away!

"There I don't agree with you."

"C-can you fight?"

"A bit. Here, keep on your coat, boy, and don't be a fool. Hands off, you young dolt!"

There was barely room on the causeway for two to pass. As Mr. Wright thrust by, Johnny snatched furiously at his arm and with just enough force to slew him round. Letting go, he struck for his face.

The plumber had no wish to hurt the lad. Being a quick man with his fists, he parried the blow easily enough.

"No more of this!" he shouted, and as Johnny leapt again, hurled him off with a backward sweep of his wrist.

He must have put more weight into it than he intended. Johnny, flung to the very edge of the causeway, floundered twice to recover his balance; his feet slipped on the mud, and with hands clutching the air he soused into the water at Mr. Wright's feet.

"Hallo!" called out a cheerful voice. "Whar you two up to?"

Dick Ellison was coming down the causeway towards the house, somewhat advanced in liquor, though it wanted an hour of noon. Wright, who knew him only by sight, did not observe this at once. "Come and help," he answered, dropping on his knees by the brink and offering Johnny a hand.

Johnny declined it. He was a strong swimmer, and in a couple of strokes regained the bank and scrambled to firm ground again, dripping from head to heel and looking excessively foolish.

"Wha's matter?" demanded Mr. Ellison again.

"Nothing he need be ashamed of," answered Mr. Wright. "Here, shake hands, my boy!"

But Johnny dropped his head and walked away, hiding tears of rage and shame.

"Sulky young pig," commented Mr. Ellison, staring blearily after him. A thought appeared to strike him.--"Blesh me, you're the new son-'law!"

"Yes, sir: Miss Hetty has just honoured me with her consent."

"Consent? I'll lay she had to! Sukey--tha's my wife--told me you were in the wind. I said the old man's wrong--all right, patching it up--Shtill--" He paused and corrected himself painfully. "Still, duty to c'nsult family; 'stead of which, he takes law in's own hands. Now list'n this, Mr.--"

"Wright."

"Qui-so." He pulled himself together again. "Quite so. Now I say, it's hard on the jade. You say, 'Nothing of the sort: she's made her bed and must lie on it.'"

"No, I don't."

"I--er--beg your pardon? You must allow me finish my argument. I say, 'Look here, I'm a gentleman: feelings of a gentleman'-- You're not a gentleman, eh?"

"Not a bit like one," the plumber agreed cheerfully.

"Tha's what I thought. Allow me to say so, I respect you for it--for speaking out, I mean. Now what I say is, wench kicks over the traces--serve her right wharrever happens: but there's family to consider--"

Here Mr. Wright interrupted firmly. "Bless your heart, Mr. Ellison, I quite see. I've made a mistake this morning."

"No offence, you understand."

"No offence at all. It turns out I've given the wrong man a ducking."

"Eh?"

"It can easily be set right. Some day when you're sober. Good morning!"

William Wright went his way whistling. Dick Ellison stared along the causeway after him.

"Low brute!" he said musingly. "If she's to marry a fellow like that, Sukey shan't visit her. I'm sorry for the girl too."

Beyond the hedge, in a corner of the kitchen-garden, Johnny Whitelamb lay in his wet clothes with his face buried in a heap of mown grass. He had failed, and shamefully, after preparing himself for the interview by pacing (it seemed to him, for hours) the box-bordered walks which Molly had planted with lilies and hollyhocks, pinks and sweet-williams and mignonette. It was high June now, and the garden breaking into glory. He had tasted all its mingled odours this morning while he followed the paths in search of Hetty; and when at length he had found her under the great filbert-tree, they seemed to float about her and hedge her as with the aura of a goddess. He had delivered his message, trembling: had watched her go with firm step to the sacrifice. And then--poor boy--wild adoration had filled him with all the courage of all the knights in Christendom. He alone would champion her against the dragon. . . . And the dragon had flung him into the ditch like a rat! He hid his face in the sweet-smelling hillock.

For years after, the scent of a garden in June, or of new-mown hay, caused him misery, recalling this the most abject hour of his life.


Arthur Quiller-Couch