‘You said something you didn’t mean?’
‘Yes,’ said Hilda.
‘And you think he might take it wrong?’
The assistant dived into the box and brought out about twenty letters. She laid them on the counter in front of Hilda.
‘Quick! quick!’ she said. ‘I’m not looking.’
Hilda knew the shape of the envelope. In a moment the letter was in her pocket. Looking at the assistant she panted; and the assistant panted slightly too. They didn’t speak for a moment; then the assistant said:
‘You’re very young, dear, aren’t you?’
Hilda drew herself up. ‘Oh, no, I’ve turned fourteen.’
‘You’re sure you’re doing the right thing? You’re not acting impulsive-like? If you’re really fond of him . . .’
‘Oh, no,’ said Hilda. ‘I’m not. . . I’m not.’ A tremor ran through her. ‘I must go now.’
The assistant bundled the letters back into the box. There was a sound behind them: the postman had come in.
‘Good evening, Miss,’ he said.
‘Good evening,’ said the assistant languidly. ‘I’ve been waiting about for you. You don’t half keep people waiting, do you?’
‘There’s them that works, and them that waits,’ said the postman.
The assistant tossed her head.
‘There’s some do neither,’ she said tartly, and then, turning in a business-like way to Hilda:
‘Is there anything else, Miss?’
‘Nothing further to-day,’ said Hilda, rather haughtily. ‘Thank you very much,’ she added.
Outside the post office, in the twilight, her dignity deserted her. She broke into a run, but her mind outstripped her, surging, exultant.
‘I shall never see him now,’ she thought, ‘I shall never see him now,’ and the ecstasy, the relief, the load off her mind, were such as she might have felt had she loved Dick Staveley and been going to meet him.
Softly she let herself into the house. The dining-room was no use: it had a gas fire. She listened at the drawing-room door. No sound. She tiptoed into the fire-stained darkness, crossed the hearthrug and dropped the letter into the reddest cleft among the coals. It did not catch at once so she took the poker to it, driving it into the heart of the heat. A flame sprang up, and at the same moment she heard a movement, and turning, saw the fire reflected in her father’s eyes.
‘Hullo, Hilda—you startled me. I was having a nap. Burning something?’
‘Yes,’ said Hilda, poised for flight.
‘A love letter, I expect.’
‘At your age——’ began Mr. Charrington. But he couldn’t remember, and anyhow it wouldn’t do to tell his daughter that at her age he had already written a love letter.
‘Must be time for tea,’ he said, yawning. ‘Where’s Eustace?’
As though in answer they heard a thud on the floor above, and the sound of water pouring into the bath.
‘That’s him,’ cried Hilda. ‘I promised him I would put his feet into mustard and water. He won’t forgive me if I don’t.’
She ran upstairs into the steam and blurred visibility, the warmth, the exciting sounds and comforting smells of the little bathroom. At first she couldn’t see Eustace; the swirls of luminous vapour hid him; then they parted and disclosed him, sitting on the white curved edge of the bath with his back to the water and his legs bare to the knee, above which his combinations and his knickerbockers had been neatly folded back, no doubt by Minney’s practised hand.
‘Oh, there you are, Hilda!’ he exclaimed. ‘Isn’t it absolutely spiffing! The water’s quite boiling. I only turned it on when you came in. I wish it was as hot as boiling oil—boiling water isn’t, you know.’
‘How much mustard did you put in?’ asked Hilda.
‘Half a tin. Minney said she couldn’t spare any more.’
‘Well, turn round and put your feet in,’ Hilda said.
‘Yes. Do you think I ought to take off my knickers, too? You see I only got wet as far as my ankles. I should have to take off my combinations.’
Hilda considered. ‘I don’t think you need this time.’
Eustace swivelled round and tested the water with his toe.
‘Come on, be brave.’
‘Yes, but you must put your feet in too. It won’t be half the fun if you don’t. Besides, you said you would, Hilda.’ In his anxiety to share the experience with her he turned round again. ‘Please! You got much wetter than I did.’
‘I got warm running. Besides, it’s only salt water. Salt water doesn’t give you a cold.’
‘Oh, but my water was salt, too.’
‘You’re different,’ said Hilda. Then, seeing the look of acute disappointment on his face, she added, ‘Well, just to please you.’
Eustace wriggled delightedly, and, as far as he dared, bounced up and down on the bath edge.
‘Take off your shoes and stockings, then,’ It was delicious to give Hilda orders. Standing stork-like, first on one foot, then on the other, Hilda obeyed.
‘Now come and sit by me. It isn’t very safe, take care you don’t lose your balance.’
Soon they were sitting side by side, looking down into the water. The clouds of steam rising round them seemed to shut off the outside world. Eustace looked admiringly at Hilda’s long slim legs.
‘I didn’t fill the bath any fuller,’ he said, in a low voice, ‘because of the marks. It might be dangerous, you know.’
Hilda looked at the bluish chips in the enamel, which spattered the sides of the bath. Eustace’s superstitions about them, and his fears of submerging them, were well known to her.
‘Oh, there won’t be any marks at school. A new system of plumbing and sanitarization was installed last year. The prospectus said so. That would mean new baths, of course. New baths don’t have marks. Your school may be the same, only the prospectus didn’t say so. I expect baths don’t matter so much for girls.’
‘They’re cleaner, anyway. Besides, they wash.’ Eustace thought of washing and having a bath as two quite different, almost unconnected things. ‘And I don’t suppose they’ll let us put our feet in mustard and water.’
‘Why not?’ repeated Hilda.
‘Oh, to harden us, you know. Boys have to be hard. If they did, it would be for a punishment, not fun like this. . . . Just put your toe in, Hilda.’
Hilda flicked the water with her toe, far enough to start a ripple, and then withdrew it.
‘It’s still a bit hot. Let’s wait a minute.’
‘Yes,’ said Eustace. ‘It would spoil everything if we turned on the cold water.’
They sat for a moment in silence. Eustace examined Hilda’s toes. They were really as pretty as fingers. His own were stunted and shapeless, meant to be decently covered.
‘Now, both together!’ he cried.
In went their feet. The concerted splash was magnificent, but the agony was almost unbearable.
‘Put your arm round me, Hilda!’
‘Then you put yours round me, Eustace!’
As they clung together their feet turned scarlet, and the red dye ran up far above the water-level almost to their knees. But they did not move, and slowly the pain began to turn into another feeling, a smart still, but wholly blissful.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ cried Eustace. ‘I could never have felt it without you!’
Hilda said nothing, and soon they were swishing their feet to and fro in the cooling water. The supreme moment of trial and triumph had gone by; other thoughts, not connected with their ordeal, began to slide into Eustace’s mind.
‘Were you in time to do it?’ he asked.
‘Well, what you were going to do when you left me on the sands.’
nbsp; ‘Oh, that,’ said Hilda indifferently. ‘Yes, I was just in time.’ She thought a moment, and added: ‘But don’t ask me what it was, because I shan’t ever tell you.’
TWO FOR THE RIVER
TWO FOR THE RIVER
Mid-August was a dull time in my garden—the drought had seen to that. Flowers there were, but even the hardiest were only half their normal size; the Japanese anemones looked like shillings, not half-crowns. Because the garden lay beside the river, and sometimes, in wet seasons, under it, people thought the subsoil must be moist, but it was not; the rain ran off the steep slope without sinking in, the river drained the ground without irrigating it.
But the river-banks had just been in full glory, two interminable winding borders on which grew willow-weed and loosestrife, the lilac clusters of hemp agrimony, deep yellow ragwort, lemon-yellow chick-weed, the peeping purple of the woody nightshade, the orange drops of the ranunculus, the youthful, tender teazle-cones of palest pink contrasting with their hard, brown, dried-up predecessors of the year before—and, a newcomer to the district but very much at home, the tall white balsam. Did the other flowers realize their danger from this rampant stranger with its innocent baby-face? Did they foresee the day when it, and only it, would occupy their standing room, making a close-set jungle through which a man could hardly force his way—while the plants, if it was their shooting season, popped off their pods at him? Nor would the invasion stop at the river-bank; it would follow up its conquest through the meadows. And how would the fishermen fare, who even now had to hack out from the massed vegetation steps and nests for themselves on competition days? Only the water-lilies would be safe, and the armies of reeds and rushes—the sword-shaped ones of yellow-green, the round pike-shafts of bluish-green, tufted with pennons—for they would have the water to protect them.
On the garden and river-bank alike autumn had already laid its spoiling finger, bringing languor and disarray to the luxuriance of summer, making it flop and sprawl. To this the river itself bore witness, for on its grey-green surface floated the earliest victims of the year’s decline, yellow willow leaves tip-tilted like gondolas, that twirled and sported in the breeze, until the greedy water sucked them under.
But the flowers grew farther upstream. On my stretch of the river there were none; trees overhung it on both sides, on mine a copper beech, a mountain ash, a square-cut bay-tree, a silver birch, a box elder, and in the corner by the boathouse, threatening its foundations, a dome-capped sycamore. A low stone wall divided the river from the garden, which was narrow for its length and sloping steeply to the lawn; and from the outward-curving terrace in front of the house you could see the river, a mirror broken here and there by tree-trunks, and darkened by the reflections of the trees on the farther bank; or maybe by the image of a cow, suspended in mid-water upside-down, the shadowy feet seeming almost to touch the real feet. Sometimes these reflections were clearer than the things reflected, so little current was there in the summer, or breeze to ruffle them. But faithful likenesses though they were, they had no colour, except a darker shade of olive-green. The river imposed its own colour on everything it looked at, even the sky.
‘Shall I bathe?’ I thought. Flanking the boathouse was a flight of steps, ending in a large square flagstone, only a few inches above the water level. Ideal for a dive! And the water was deep almost at once, twenty feet deep, some said; I hadn’t plumbed it. It did invite me. I laid aside my pen, for I was writing in the open air, a thing I seldom do—the open air has so many distractions, so many claims on one’s attention: the river itself, for instance! But no, it was too late to bathe: the August sun hung over Follet Down, and my circulation wasn’t what it used to be. Tomorrow at midday, perhaps . . .
As I was taking up my pen again, with the dull, cold sense of self-congratulation that an unwilling act of prudence sometimes brings, I saw a ripple spreading on the river, convex at first, then slightly concave. It was the swans, angry as usual. What trouble those odious birds had given me! He, the cob, was much the worse of the two; she was a nasty creature, with a supercilious, inquisitive expression, but she only aided and abetted him. He was a demon. An inveterate oarsman with a large experience of swans, I had often thought that this one was possessed: Jupiter in disguise perhaps, or not even in disguise. He seemed to think I had designs on her. A Leda-complex! I shouldn’t have thought of bathing if I’d known he was about, for he had a bad record with bathers. And with boaters a worse one; but I was his favourite target. He had only to see me in my skiff to go for me. It was a slender craft, hard to trim and easily upset: if I had had hair enough to matter I should have parted it in the middle. His methods of attack varied from infighting, when he would try to get his wing under the boat, to dive-bombing tactics. These were still more alarming. Spying me from afar he would come after me, skimming over the water and then, when I was bracing myself to take the impact of this living rocket, subside behind me in a smother of foam. The four-barred iron seat in the stern defended me: he dared not risk collision with it. But he had found a way round it, and now his system was to by-pass the stern and try to land on one of the sculls. So far he had missed his mark, but if he hit it . . .
What was he up to now? With snaky neck pressed down between outward-curving wings held taut for flight, he was forcing his way upstream with powerful thrusts, using his feet for oars, as the Greek poet said. Behind him at a discreet distance came his mate, paddling feverishly, but with neck erect, not battened down as his was. Had they seen another swan perhaps, an interloper? For this was their reach of the river, as it had been mine, before they came, and they would not tolerate another swan on it.
They passed on, out of sight, but his baleful, malignant presence lingered with me; I have never seen, in any creature, such devilish intent as flashed from that wicked eye. Swollen with anger, he looked twice the size of other swans. Had it become a struggle for mastery between us? Did he embody some spirit of opposition to me, that the place had? I loved it, but since I bought it, eleven years ago, so many vexatious and frustrating things had happened. . . .
Now all was peace. The river had regained its glassy surface and restored the sense of quietude which the contemplation of still water nearly always gives me. Just as the sudden cessation of a noise—a dog barking or someone hammering—induces sleep, so did the let-up in my swan-resentment prepare my mind for more congenial guests. Now for some real work.
Or so I promised myself, and rested my elbows on the iron table, painted green to match the garden. But my musings were once more interrupted before they became fertile. Another ripple spread across the river, and before I had time to wonder if it heralded another swan, I heard the sound of voices, a man’s voice and a woman’s. This didn’t surprise me. Boats, other than mine, were infrequent on the river, because of the weir, half a mile below, that protected it from the populous reach used by the townspeople. But hardier spirits sometimes lifted their boats round the weir and went on upstream into the unspoilt countryside.
Instead of carrying on past me, as I thought they would, the voices seemed to become stationary, and changed their tone. From being desultory they became animated; from being animated, argumentative. Which of the two prevailed I still don’t know, but it was the man who called out to me.
I was only a stone’s throw from them, and not many feet above them, but as I am a little deaf I got up from my table, rather unwillingly, and went down the steps through the rockery and across the lawn in the direction the sounds came from. Leaning over the wall I saw them, in a smart, light new canoe, the man, who sat behind, holding on to the big flagstone that served as my diving-board.
I suppose they hadn’t seen or heard me coming, for they looked up as if I was an apparition. They were both very fair, in their late twenties, I should guess, and both very good-looking—she especially. She had a longish face, deep blue eyes, and corn-gold hair piled high on her head. They were both wearing white.
He was the first to sp
‘Sir,’ he said again (perhaps it was a tribute to my age), ‘you must excuse us, but we wondered if you would let us use your landing-stage to change places in the boat? You see we are not skilled canoeists, and my wife is rather tired of paddling always on one side. We mustn’t change places in mid-stream, I’m told. If you would allow us to land for a moment——’
His pleasant voice, her questioning, self-deprecatory smile, and their unassuming air (boating brings out rowdyism in so many people) made me take to them.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘But aren’t you tired, having come all the way from Warmwell? Why not stop and have a drink, one for the river, before you go on?’
They exchanged a doubtful look. Does the prospect bore them? I thought, instantly suspicious. But the woman said:
‘You’re very kind. We’d like to.’
‘Let me give you a hand,’ I said. ‘You mustn’t rock the boat too much’—a timely warning, as it turned out, for they made a very awkward landing. ‘I told you we were amateurs,’ the man said. ‘In fact we only bought this canoe yesterday. We’re on our honeymoon; it’s almost the first thing we’ve bought since we were married! We’re staying in Warmwell to house-hunt,’ he went on, ‘and the river looked so inviting with the swans by Paulet Bridge, and all—we thought it would be fun to have our own boat, and go prospecting. That’s what brought us here! But it’s an awkward piece of luggage to travel with. Perhaps we shall give it away. But I hope——’
By this time we were half-way across the lawn. They fitted their long strides to mine; their graceful, white-clad figures were so tall I wondered how they tucked themselves into the boat.
We had drinks in my study, a darkish room in spite of its three windows. The creepers I once planted had rampaged. The jessamine looked in at one window, too intrusively, and the other two were darkened by the clematis which dripped from the veranda in untidy loops and streamers. But my visitors were enchanted.
‘So this is where you work?’ the woman asked.