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The hottest day of all days in the hottest June of all Junes was beginning to abate its burning, and the inhabitants of close-packed cities and their perspiring congregations cherished the hope that before long some semblance of briskness might return into the ardent streets. Providence, it would appear, justly resentful at the long-continued complaints that hot summers were altogether a thing of the past, had determined to show that something could still be done in that line, but this rejoinder, humorous at first, had long ago ceased to amuse. From morning till night for the last six weeks an unveiled sun had shed a terrific ray on to the baked pavements and reverberating house-walls, but to-day had beaten all previous records, and a solemn glee pervaded the meteorological offices, the reports of which seemed to claim a sort of proprietary credit in the readings of their incredible thermometers. ...
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E. F. Benson
The hottest day of all days in the hottest June of all Junes was beginning to abate its burning, and the inhabitants of close-packed cities and their perspiring congregations cherished the hope that before long some semblance of briskness might return into the ardent streets. Providence, it would appear, justly resentful at the long-continued complaints that hot summers were altogether a thing of the past, had determined to show that something could still be done in that line, but this rejoinder, humorous at first, had long ago ceased to amuse. From morning till night for the last six weeks an unveiled sun had shed a terrific ray on to the baked pavements and reverberating house-walls, but to-day had beaten all previous records, and a solemn glee pervaded the meteorological offices, the reports of which seemed to claim a sort of proprietary credit in the readings of their incredible thermometers.
Under these conditions it was with a sigh of relief that Arthur Craddock subsided into the corner-seat of a first-class smoking carriage at Paddington, finding that it was smoking, figuratively speaking, in less specialized a sense than that intended by the railway-company, for it had been standing for an hour or two in the sun outside the station. But he had clear notions about the risk of chill even on so hot a day, and when the train moved out from the dusky glass vault, he drew up the window beside which he sat, for it was impossible for him to take a seat with his back to the direction of progress, since the sight of receding landscape always made him feel slightly unwell. But, as he was alone in his carriage, there was no reason why he should not refresh his clay-coloured face with a mist of wall-flower scent which he squirted delicately over his forehead and closed eyes from a bottle in his silver-mounted dressing-case. Then he pulled down all the blinds in his carriage and sitting quite still in this restorative gloom indulged in pleasant anticipations.
He was a very large stout person, wearing his hair, which was beginning to grow thin, though no hint of greyness invaded its sleek blackness, conspicuously long. Round his ears and the back of his head it was still thick, but it no longer felt capable of growth on the top of his high peaked head, and in consequence he brushed it from the territories on the left side of his head over the top of his bald skull, and mingled the extremities of these locks with those that grew on the territories on the right of his head. It might thus be hoped that short-sighted and unobservant persons would come to the gratifying conclusion that the thatch was complete. He wore a small reddish moustache which in the centre of his immense colourless face might remind a Biblical beholder of the Burning Bush in the desert of Sin, for he looked vaguely debauched (which he was not) and overfed (which was probable to the verge of certainty). His hands, of which he was exceedingly proud, were small and white and plump; they were carefully manicured and decorated with a couple of rings, each set with a large cabochon stone. When, as now, they were not otherwise occupied, he habitually used one of them to caress the side of this desert of Sin, as if to make sure that no whisker was surreptitiously sprouting there. In dress, though he was certainly old enough to know better, he affected the contemporary style of a fashionable young man, and his brown flannel suit had evidently the benediction of the tailor fresh upon it. His tie, in which was pinned a remarkably fine pearl, was slightly more vivid than his suit, but of the same colour as his socks, a smooth two inches of which appeared below his turned-up trousers, and his shirt had a stripe of the same colour as his tie. No watch-chain glittered on the amplitude where it would naturally repose, but on his left wrist he wore a narrow band of gold braid with a lady's watch set in it. A white straw hat and brown shoes were the alpha and omega of his costume.
Though his face was singularly unwrinkled, except for rather heavy bags of loose skin below his eyes, it was quite evident that Arthur Craddock had left youth far behind him, but it would have been an imprudent man who would have wagered as to his ability to guess it within the limits of four or five years, for his corpulence was of the somewhat gross sort that may come early to an inactive man, in whose sedentary day dinner is something of an event. But it would not have required a very subtle physiognomist to conjecture for him an alert and athletic mind. His small grey eyes, which were unsurmounted by any hint of eyebrow, were, though a little red and moist, of a singular intensity in focus, and as active in poise and dart as a hovering dragon-fly, while even in repose they wore a notably watchful and observant look. His hands, too, which afforded him so constant a gratification, were undeniably the hands of an artist, long-fingered in proportion to the palms, and taper-nailed. Artist he was, too, to the very tips of those pink and shining triumphs of the manicurist, and though he neither painted nor played nor set forth on adventures in romance or poetry, his judgment and perception in all such achievements on the part of others was a marvel of unerring instinct, and was solidly based on an unrivalled knowledge of the arts. Not only, too, could he appreciate and condemn with faultless acumen, but side by side with that gift, and totally distinct from it, he had an astonishingflairfor perceiving what the public would appreciate, and just as he was seldom at fault in true artistic judgment, so also was he an accurate appraiser of the money-earning value of play or picture. He was, it may be stated, not unconnected with the artistic columns of the daily press, and the frequent articles he contributed to three leading papers on pictures, concerts and plays, were often masterpieces of criticism, while at other times and for other reasons he plentifully belauded work in which, though he might artistically despise it, he was financially interested. His critical powers and the practical use to which he put them in purchases and in these penetrating paragraphs had proved most remunerative to him during these last fifteen or twenty years, and he had already laid by a very comfortable provision for his declining days, which he sincerely hoped were as yet very far off. He was fond of money, and, very wisely, had not the least objection to spending it in works of art which gave him pleasure, especially when his judgment told him that they would go up in value. Then, if a picture or a bronze could be sold again at a much higher price than that which he paid for it, he would part with it without any agony of reluctance. These transactions were conducted unobtrusively and it occurred to nobody to call him a dealer. If such a supposition ever occurred to himself, he put it from him with the utmost promptitude. But every quarter he paid the rent of Thistleton's Gallery in Bond Street, from which so many of the English masters set forth on their voyage to the United States.
His immediate anticipations, as has been already remarked, were pleasurable, for the Thames-side house at Thorley where he was to dine and sleep would certainly be a refreshing exchange from the baking airlessness of town. It was true that there would be nothing special in the way of dinner to look forward to, for his host Philip Wroughton was a penurious dyspeptic of long but hypochondriacal standing, and Arthur Craddock, made wise by a previous experience, had directed his valet to take with him certain palatable and nutritious biscuits in case dinner proved to be not only plain in quality but deficient in quantity. But there were two attractions which he was sure of finding there, each of which more than compensated the certain short-comings of the table. These were Philip Wroughton's daughter and Philip Wroughton's Reynolds: briefly, he hoped to possess himself of both.
It was impossible to decide between the rival excellencies of these. The Reynolds picture was exquisite: it represented his host's great-grandmother. But Joyce Wroughton his host's daughter might have sat in person for it, and the artist would have congratulated himself on having so supremely caught the frank charm and vigour of her beauty. More than most of the master's portraits it set forth a breezy and glorious vitality; it was as if Diana and an Amazon had been ancestresses to the sitter, in so swift and active a poise the slim white-clad figure paused with head turned and beckoning hand and smile before it passed up the glade of dark-foliaged trees behind it. How often had Craddock seen Joyce Wroughton in just such a momentary attitude as she swung across the lawn from her punting on the river, and turned to call her collies lest they should enter the tent where her father sat and disturb him at his employment of doing nothing at all. Craddock, sluggish of blood and corpulent of limb, found a charm of wonderful potency in the girl's lithe and athletic youth, and his own subtle intricate-weaving mind admired hardly less the serenity and simplicity of hers, which seemed as untroubled and unmorbid as that which he would conjecture for some white Hellenic marble. It cannot be truthfully stated that in the common acceptance of the word he was in love with her, but he immensely admired her, and, being of the age when a man says to himself that if he intends to marry he must without delay put out from the harbour of his bachelorhood, he had decided to set his sails. She, only just twenty years of age, was more than a quarter of a century his junior, but this seemed to him a perfectly satisfactory chronology, since for full twenty years more her beauty would but ripen and develop.
His desire to possess himself of the Reynolds portrait was in a sense more altruistic, since he did not propose to keep it himself. He was prepared to offer to the present owner of it what would certainly appear to one not conversant with salesrooms a very generous price, and he was also prepared to take a far more generous price for it himself from an American friend who was victim to a trans-Atlantic ambition to possess a dozen portraits by this master. He scarcely knew a picture from a statue, but he wanted pictures, and Craddock in previous transactions with him had learned not to be shy of asking enormous sums for them, since Mr. William P. Ward's comment was invariable, laconic and satisfactory. "I'm sure I'm very much indebted to you," was all he said, and proceeded to discharge his indebtedness.
Craddock's precautions with regard to the sun that beat on the carriage windows were quite successful, and he felt cool and presentable when he was shown into this riverside house and out again onto the lawn that bordered the Thames where tea was laid under the big plane tree that shaded a drowsy area of cool green. Joyce, inimitable save for the foreshadowing Sir Joshua, rose to receive him, forgetting to turn off the water from the urn which was ministering to the teapot. Upon which a thin hand came out of an encompassing chair, and a rather fretful voice said:
"The tea will be drowned, Joyce. Oh, is that Mr. Craddock? Charmed."
Having saved the tea from drowning, Philip Wroughton gave Craddock a sufficiently cordial welcome. He did not rise from his basket chair, but extended a welcoming hand. He had a footstool to keep his feet from any risk of damp from the scorched and arid grass, and a thin plaid shawl was laid across his knees, as a preventative of miasmic humours reaching those joints. In person he was a wizen bird-eyed little man, fleshless and hollow-cheeked, and grey-haired, and by the side of his daughter he looked like a dried Normandy pippin compared to a fresh apple, sun-tinted and vivid-skinned. Beside him, chiefly concealed from view by the scarlet sunshade which cast a red glow on to her face, sat his mother, old Lady Crowborough, who was by far the most juvenile of any company in which she found herself. Not being on speaking terms with her elder son (though she spoke about him a good deal) she stayed with Philip whenever she found it convenient, and gave him a great deal of good advice, which he seldom acted upon. She delighted in her age, which she habitually exaggerated, and had now for several years said that she was ninety, though as a matter of fact she would not attain that agreeable age for several years yet. She was remarkable for her shrewdness, her memory and her health, and wore a rather girlish and simple costume with a flapping linen sun-bonnet. Time, that inexorable accountant, seemed to have passed over her page, and her face was still marvellously soft and unwrinkled, and her sight and hearing were yet acute and undimmed. Arthur Craddock had not expected to find her here, and he was not sure that the discovery pleased him, for she always produced in him a sensation of being detected.
Philip Wroughton continued his low-voiced and languid phrases of welcome.
"Charmed to see you," he said. "You know my mother, do you not? It is good of you to come down and see us in our retreat. I, with my wretched health, as you know, cannot leave home, and Joyce really prefers the river and her dogs and perhaps the society of her poor old father to the distractions of town. Eh, Joyce?"
Joyce might or might not have endorsed the filial sentiments thus attributed to her, but her opportunity of doing so was snatched from her by her grandmother who endorsed none of these things.
"It's all stuff and nonsense about your health, Philip," she said. "You would be as strong as me if you only would put your medicine bottles into the grate, and eat good nourishing food, instead of the slops you stuff yourself with. And as for Joyce preferring to spend her time with you, instead of dancing and flirting with all the agreeable young fellows in London, you know quite well that it's you who keep her mewed up here to carry your cushions and pour out your medicines and put up your umbrella."
Joyce interrupted this recital of menial duties with a laugh.
"Granny, darling," she said, "how many lumps of sugar?"
"Three if they're decent big ones," said Lady Crowborough with decision. "Tell us what's going on in town, Mr. Craddock."
Arthur Craddock habitually made himself agreeable when it was worth while, and here he had three persons whom he desired to stand well with—Philip Wroughton for the sake of the Reynolds, Joyce for her own sake, and Lady Crowborough for reasons of self-protection.
"A burning fiery furnace is going on in town, my dear lady," he said. "The heat has been a torture, and I only hope I have been expiating some crime. The worst of it is that I have searched my memory without any success for something I have done to deserve these flames. But I seem to have been almost priggishly virtuous. What do you think I can have done, Miss Joyce?"
Joyce put the three decent lumps into her grandmother's tea, and laughed again. She always felt a certain slight physical repulsion for this stout white man, though she recognised his agreeable qualities.
"Ah, how can I tell?" she said. "You have not made me your confessor."
Mr. Craddock remembered that he would probably not get very much dinner, and took a large soft bun with sugar on the top of it.
"I instantly offer you the post," he said, "though I can still think of nothing to confess. You will have a sinecure. And yet after all it was one's own choice to stop in town, and certainly there have been pleasant things going on. I suppose, too, that at this moment the keenness of my pleasure in sitting on this delicious lawn in the shade and coolness of your beautiful plane tree is enhanced by the contrast with the furnace I have escaped from. And will you take me out again in your punt after tea, as you did when I was here last? All the way down I have had a prospective vision of you looking like a Victory off some Greek frieze with your punt-pole, and of myself reclining on the cushions like—like a middle-aged but unintoxicated Silenus."
This speech, since not addressed to Lady Crowborough, was too lengthy for her taste.
"Nasty uncomfortable things are punts," she observed, "going crawling along with one person poking and fuddling away among the mud and eels at the bottom of the river, and dribbling the water from the pole over the other. Joyce made me go out with her yesterday, and one of her great dogs sat on my lap, and the other panted and slobbered over my frock, while the sun frizzled the marrow out of my bones. If I must go on the river, give me a motor-boat that takes you along instead of going backwards half the time."
"I think I shall not find it too chilly in the punt to-night, Joyce," said her father, "if I take the shawl that is next thickest to the one I have here. Or perhaps it would be more prudent to take both. Will you see to that, my dear, when you have finished tea, and tell them also to put dinner a quarter of an hour later. Then I shall be able to rest for a little after we get in. Let us start very soon. Bring Mr. Craddock one of my shawls, too; he will be likely to find it chilly after the heat of town. A Shetland wool shawl, Mr. Craddock, I find keeps one warm without any feeling of weight."
Lady Crowborough's impatience at her son's hygienic precautions fizzed and spurted again at this.
"And bring me my cough-drops, Joyce," she said, "and my goloshes, and my little fur-cape, and a digestive pill, and my liver-mixture. And don't forget to take some cotton wool, to put in your ears, and the eye-lotion. Lord save us, Philip! You and your Shetland shawls!"
"I envy you your robustness, dear mother," said he. "I only wish you had bequeathed me more of it."
Lady Crowborough had finished tea, and accompanied Joyce on her errand of Shetland shawls, thus leaving the two men together.
"Joyce will bring the punt around in ten minutes," said her father, "and in the interval I shall be glad to have a chat with you, Mr. Craddock. I have been considering the question of selling the Reynolds, if you remember our talk when you were last here, and I have come to the conclusion that it is really my duty to do so. I feel that I ought to spend next winter in some warm and sunny climate, where I may have a chance of recovering some measure of my ruined health. But that of course would cost money, and my wretched poverty puts it out of the question for me, unless I can sell some such possession. Joyce, too, poor girl, will enjoy a greater stir and gaiety than I can give her here. There is little enough of it in her life, though I know she finds compensation from its absence in the sedulous care with which she insists on looking after me. I dare say there will not be many more years of invalid-nursing before her. All I can do is to make them as little tedious as may be. Indeed, it is chiefly for her sake that I contemplate the sale of this picture."
He paused a moment and lit a curiously-smelling cigarette which counteracted a tendency to hay-fever. Like many people he was strangely credulous about his own statements, and came to believe them almost as soon as they were made. Indeed, on this occasion, before his cigarette was well alight, he fancied that in part at any rate his plans of wintering in some warm climate had been made for Joyce's sake.
"I think you mentioned some number of pounds you thought you could get me for my great-grandmother's picture," he said. "Five thousand? Was that the amount? I have no head for figures. Yes. And an American, was it not? I hate the thought of my picture going to America but poor men like me must not mind being kicked and plundered by the golden West. Probably it would be hung up in someabattoir, where oxen are driven in at one end, and tinned meat taken out at the other. And for once my mother agrees with my determination to sell it. She says that I cannot afford to have such a large cheque hanging framed in my study."
Arthur Craddock did not find much difficulty in sorting the grain from the husk, in this very characteristic speech. But he wisely treated it all as grain.
"I know well your solicitude for Miss Joyce's happiness," he said. "And I need not tell you how much it honours you. But with regard to the future home of your delightful picture I can assure you that there is noabattoirawaiting it. Mr. Ward has half a dozen Reynolds already, and some very notable examples among them. And, as I told you, I think there is no doubt he would give five thousand for it."
He caressed the side of his face, and finding no disconcerting whisker there, wondered how much he would actually venture to charge Mr. Ward for the picture.
"In fact I offer you five thousand for it here and now," he said. "Ah, here is Miss Joyce in her punt coming for us."
Philip Wroughton dismissed this insignificant interruption.
"Then call to her, Mr. Craddock," he said, "if you will be so good and tell her we shall be ready in five minutes. I cannot raise my voice above the ordinary tone of speech without excruciating pain. She will take a little turn in her punt, and come back for us. You will excuse me if I shut my ears when you shout; a loud noise tears my nerves to ribands."
Arthur Craddock got up.
"I will go and tell her," he said.
"So good of you: I am ashamed to trouble you," said Wroughton, not moving.
He walked down to the edge of the lawn, where was the landing-stage.
"We are talking business, Miss Joyce," he said, "so will you come back for us in five minutes. You have just stepped off some Greek frieze of the best period, let me tell you. I long to recline like a teetotal Silenus of the worst period on those cushions. In five minutes, then?"
Joyce leaned towards him on her punt-pole and spoke low.
"Oh, Mr. Craddock," she said. "Are you talking about the Reynolds? Father told me he was thinking of selling it. Do persuade him not to. I am so fond of it."
She gave him a little friendly nod and smile.
"Do try," she said. "Yes, I will come back in five minutes. There's a swans' nest among the reeds down there, and I will just go to see if the cygnets are hatched out yet."
Wroughton looked languidly at him on his return.
"Joyce has a ridiculous affection for that portrait," he said, "and I have a reasonable affection for it. I can't afford to look at it: I am far more in need of a suitable winter climate than of any work of art. Yet sometimes I wish that these Pactolus-people had left us alone."
This was not a strictly logical attitude, for it was obviously possible to refuse the offer, and leave the Pactolus-people alone. Nothing more than an opportunity had been offered him, of which he was free to take advantage or not, just as he chose. As for Craddock, he felt himself advantageously placed, for if he upheld Joyce's wish, he would ingratiate himself with her, while if the sale took place, he would reap an extremely handsome profit himself. For the moment the spell of the riverside Diana was the most potent.
"I can understand Miss Joyce's feeling," he said, "and yours also, when you wish that the Pactolus-people as you so rightly call them had left you alone. I respect those feelings, I share and endorse them. So let us discuss the question no further. I will tell my friend that I cannot induce you to part with your picture. No doubt he will find other owners not so sensitive and fine as you and Miss Joyce. Of course he will be disappointed, but equally of course I gave him to understand that I could in no way promise success in the enterprise."
Even as he spoke the balance wavered. He could tell Joyce that he had urged her father not to part with his picture, and her gratitude would be earned, and he knew that he wanted that more than he wanted to gratify her by his success. Thus it was satisfactory to find that he had not disturbed the stability of Wroughton's determination, and his profit was safe also.
"Ah, that is all very well for you," said Wroughton, "with your robust health and your ignorance of what it means to be so poor that you cannot afford the alleviation which would make life tolerable. Beggars cannot afford to be so fine. Even Joyce does not know what I suffer in this miserable swamp during the winter months. But I am convinced she cannot have her father and the picture with her, for I am sure I should never survive another winter here."
His thin peaked face grew soft with self-pity, which was the most poignant emotion that ever penetrated to his mind.
"She would bitterly reproach herself," he went on, "if after I am gone, she conjectured that I might have been spared to her a little longer if I had been able to spend the winter months in a climate less injurious to me. She does not really know how ill I am, for of course I do not speak to her about that. I want to spare her all the anxiety I can, and in speaking to her of my project of spending the winter in some sunny climate, in Egypt or on the Riviera, I have laid stress only on the pleasure that such a visit will give her. No, no, Mr. Craddock, my poor Joyce and I must put our pride in our pocket; indeed there is nothing else there. I will close with your American friend's offer: my mind is made up. Naturally I should want a good copy of the picture made for me without cost to myself. It might be possible for you in your great kindness to arrange that for me. You might perhaps make it part of the condition of sale: five thousand pounds and a good copy."
Craddock waved this aside. He had delicately disposed of another bun.
"That is easily arranged," he said, wiping his fingers that were a little sticky with the sugar on his fine cambric handkerchief. "I feel sure I can guarantee his acceptance of your terms."
Philip Wroughton coughed gently once or twice. He always said that questions concerning money were distasteful to him. It is quite true that they were so, when they concerned his parting with it.
"And am I right in supposing that you would expect whatever the usual commission happens to be?" he asked. "If so, shall I pay it, or your friend?"
Craddock interrupted him with the promptitude born of horror at such a suggestion.
"I beg you not to hurt my feelings by proposing anything of the kind," he said.
Philip Wroughton instantly and with apologies withdrew his inhumanity.
By this time Joyce had returned from her expedition to the swans' nest and was waiting for them. She had already put into the punt a selection of grey Shetland shawls, with a quantity of cushions, and the task of making her father quite secure and comfortable next demanded all her patience and serenity. But she had to make one more expedition to the house to get his white umbrella, for the heat of the sun not yet set might easily penetrate the black one which he had brought with him. He needed also a fly-whisk in case the midges became troublesome, a binocular glass, and the very careful disposition of cushions so that no draught could conceivably come through the cane back against which he reclined. Then, when he was quite settled, Craddock got in, and Joyce pushed out into the stream leaving two pairs of pathetic dogs' eyes wistfully regarding her from the bank. But it was impossible to take Huz and Buz, his brother, when her father was in the punt, for they fidgeted him on these hot days with their panting, and could not be relied on to keep perfectly and permanently motionless.
Joyce, as was usual with her, was bareheaded, and was clad in a very simple home-made skirt of butcher's blue much stained with water and bleached with sun, and a white flannel blouse the arms of which she had rolled up to above her elbows; but Craddock, who was a skilled appreciator with regard to female apparel, would not have had her change her really elementary garments for the most sumptuous and glittering fabrics. In general, he entirely believed that a woman's beauty is enhanced by the splendour of her attire, and saw the value of satin and tiaras. But there was something so completely satisfying and suitable in this rough river-dress that he would not have added any embellishment to it, nor have expunged a single water-stain or sun-bleach. The girl's superb slim figure, divine in the elasticity of its adolescence, now bending to her stroke, now rigidly erect again as she trailed her pole back through the frilled water, stood out in the simplicity of Attic relief with its plain white and blue against the reflected greens and browns which the trees and shady places cast onto the polished mirror of the water. Her arms bare to above the elbow showed the full roundness and soft, slim strength of her beautiful limbs, and for the most part, except when she turned at the end of her stroke, her face was in profile to him, giving him the short, straight nose of the Reynolds picture, the fine mouth with generous underlip a little drooping, and the firm oval of the curve from chin to ear. Here in the stern, while she made these magnificent sweeps and curtsies with her punt-pole, were sitting her father and himself, and he had no need to glance at Mr. Wroughton, or to think consciously of himself with his obese and middle-aged figure in order to remind himself of the glorious contrast between the passengers and the splendour of their long-limbed conductress. She was Thames, she was June, she was the enchanted incarnation of all that was immortally young and beautiful, and though naturally vain, he felt delighted to be part of her foil, to set her off more than any "silk and fine array" could have done. For the first time he hardly knew whether he did not admire the Reynolds portrait so much because it was so like her. There was the same spirit of wind and woodland and sunshine and joyous serenity about it. The type was here incarnate, and he bathed his mind in it, washing off, temporarily at least, the merchandise and tittle-tattle of its normal environment. Surely this admiration of his touched ecstasy, touched love.
There soon came a turn in this sunny fluid reach of Thorley, and Mr. Wroughton, without imprudence, furled his white umbrella, and adjusted his binoculars for a languid survey of the shadowed river. On one side a wood of tall virginal beeches clad the hill-side down to the edge of the towing-path, and the huge curves of aspiring tree-tops climbed unbroken to the summit of the hill. A fringe of hawthorn-trees, cascades of red and white, bordered this fairyland of forest, and below the towing-path a strip of river-fed grasses and herbs of the water-side were fresh and feathery. Spires of meadow-sweet reared their stiff-stemmed umbrellas of cream-colour, and loosestrife pointed its mauve spires into the tranquil air. The dog-rose spread its maiden-hued face skywards, with defence of long-thorned shoots, and lovely sprays with half-opened chalices hung Narcissus-like above the tranquil tide. Below the water waved secret forests of river-weed, with darting fishes for birds in the drowned branches, that undulated in the stream, and here and there tall clumps of rushes with their dry brown blooms wagged and oscillated mysteriously to the twitchings of unseen currents. To the left the ground was low-lying in stretch of tree-bordered meadow, and from not far in front of them the sleepy murmur of Thorley weir sounded with the cool melodious thunder of its outpoured and renewed waters. Willows fringed the banks, and glimpses of meadow behind them, lying open to the level rays of the declining sun, shone with their rival sunlight of buttercup and luxuriant marsh marigold. Birds were busy among the bushes with supper, and resonant with even-song, and jubilant thrushes were rich with their rapturous and repeated phrases. And Arthur Craddock with his swift artistic sense, not too sophisticated for simplicity, saw with an appreciation that was almost tremulous how all this benediction of evening and bird-song and running water was reflected and focussed in the tall bending figure of this beautiful girl, and in her vigour and in the serenity of her brown level eyes. She was in tune with it, beating to its indwelling rhythm, a perfect human instrument in this harmony and orchestra of living things, part of it, thrilling to it, singing with it....
And the fact that he saw this so strongly, appreciated it so justly, measured the myriad miles he was distant from loving her. An infinite hair-breadth placed him further from love than is the remotest star from the revolving earth.
They glided up opposite a juncture of streams. To the right lay the main body of the river towards Thorley lock, to the left a minor stream hurried from the low-thundering weir. Joyce pushed strongly outwards on the right of the punt, and turned it with frill of protesting water into the narrower and swifter stream, willow-framed on both sides. Here there was shallower and more rapid water, that gleamed over bright gravel-beds, and even as they turned a king-fisher ashine with sapphire and turquoise wheeled like a jewelled boomerang close in front of them, giving a final hint of the gleaming romance and glory that lies so close below the surface of the most routined and rutted life. They made a sharp angle round a corner, and close in front of them was the grey spouting weir, and the deep pool below it, lucid with ropes and necklaces of foam and iridescent bubble. A long spit of land jutted out into the river and on it was a grey canvas tent.
Joyce had been punting on the right of the boat with her back to this, but just as they came opposite to it, the shifting current of the stream thrown across it by this spit of land made it advantageous to change the sides of her poling, and from close at hand she saw the tent and the presumed inhabitants thereof, two young men, one perhaps eighteen years old, the other some four or five years his senior. They were as suitably clad as she and more scantily, for a shirt and a pair of trousers apiece, without further decoration of tie or shoe or sock, was all that could be claimed for either of them. The younger was utterly intent on some elementary cooking-business over a spirit-lamp; the elder with brush and palette in hand was frowningly absorbed in a picture that stood on an easel in front of him. So close to the river-bank was the easel set, that it was impossible not to apprehend the vivid presentment that stood on it: there was the weir and the nude figure of a boy on the header-board in the act of springing from it into the water. Then at the moment when the punt was closest, the artist, hitherto so intent on his picture that the advent of the punt was as unnoticed by him as by the boy who bent over the spirit-lamp, looked away from his canvas and saw them. Thereat he attended no more to his work, but merely stared (rudely, if it had not been instinctively) at Joyce with young eager eyes, half-opened mouth, vivid, alert, and suitable to the romance of the river-side and the pulse of the beating world. It seemed right that he should be there; like Joyce and the willow-trees, he belonged to the picture that would have been incomplete without him, young and smooth-faced, and barefooted and bright-haired.
On the instant the cooking-boy spoke, high and querulously.
"Oh, Charles," he said, "this damned omelette won't do anything. It's a sort of degraded glue."
Joyce laughed before she knew she had laughed, with her eyes still on Charles. Indeed she hardly knew she laughed at all, any more than a child knows, who laughs for a reason as primal as the beat of the heart. The blood flows.... Then, still primally, she saw his responsive amusement, and as they laughed, a glance as fresh as the morning of the world passed between them. She had looked at him no longer than it took her to pull her punt-pole up to her side again, then turning her head, in obedience to the exigence of another stroke, she looked away from him. But it seemed to her that that one moment had been from everlasting. It was the only thing that concerned her, that meant anything.... And the strange fantastic moment was passed. Craddock's voice terminated it.
"Your glasses for a second, Mr. Wroughton," he said, and without waiting for verbal permission he snatched them up with a quickness of movement that was rare with him, and had one fleeting look at Charles' picture. The next stroke of the punt-pole took them round the spit of land into the bubble and foam of the bathing-pool below the weir.
Joyce skirted round this, keeping in shallow water and out of the current. A backwash of water made it unnecessary for her to exert herself further for a moment, and she turned full-face to the two men. Something within her, some indwelling beat of harmony with the simple and serene things of the world, made a smile, as unconscious as her laugh had been, to uncurl her lips.
"What a jolly time those two boys are having," she said. "I hope the omelette will cease to be degraded glue. And, Mr. Craddock, wasn't Charles—the cook called him Charles—wasn't Charles painting rather nicely? Did you see?"
Certainly Craddock had seen, though he wanted to see again, but it was her father who answered.
"I think we will turn and go home, Joyce," he said. "It will be chilly at sunset. What have you done with my second shawl?"
Joyce laid down the dripping punt-pole.
"Here it is," she said. "Will you have it over your shoulders or on your knees?"
The bows of the punt were caught by the weir-stream, and the boat swung swiftly round.
"Take care, Joyce," he cried. "You will have us swamped. And you should not put down your punt-pole in the boat. It has wetted me."
Joyce spread the second shawl over his knees, and tucked the edges of it round him.
"No, dear, it hasn't touched you," she said, "and we aren't going to be swamped."
She took up her pole again, and a couple of strokes sent them swiftly gliding down the rapid water. Next moment they were again opposite the tent; one boy was still stirring the deferred omelette, the artist with brush still suspended had his eyes fixed on their punt. Once again Joyce's glance met his, and once again Arthur Craddock picked up Wroughton's glasses, and got a longer look at the picture on the easel, before they floated out of range. He was even more impressed by this second glance; there was a vitality and a sureness about the work which was remarkable. For the moment the thought of the Reynolds, and even Joyce herself, blue and white with the background of feathery willow trees, was effaced from his mind. Certainly the boy could paint, and he was for ever on the look-out for those who could paint, more particularly if they were young and unknown. He felt certain he had never seen work by this young man before, for he could not have forgotten such distinctive handling. As certainly he would see artist and canvas again before he left Thorley. This was the sort of opportunity with which his quick unerring judgment was occasionally rewarded. There might be a bargain to be made here.
Philip Wroughton was in amazingly genial humour that night, and read them extracts about the climate of Egypt from a guide-book. He had quite an affecting and tender little scene with Joyce, in the presence of Arthur Craddock on the subject of the sale of the picture, and had told her with a little tremble of his voice that it was for her to choose whether she would part with the portrait or himself, according to the formula he had already employed in discussing the matter with Craddock. On this second repetition it had gained reality in his mind, and Joyce with her sweet indulgence for all that concerned her father did him the justice of recognizing that to him this tissue of imagination was of solid quality. Somehow the prospective loss of the picture, too, did not weigh heavily with her, for she was conscious of a sunlight of inward happiness which could not be clouded by any such event. She had no idea from whence it sprang, it seemed to be connected with no particular happening, but was like one of those hours of childhood which we remember all our lives when we were intensely and utterly happy for no definite reason. Never, too, had she seen her father more alive and alert, and he went so far as to drink nearly a whole glass of the bottle of champagne which he had opened for his guest, to wish prosperity and a happy home for the portrait. But, in this established imperfection of human things, he had slight qualms on the wisdom of this daring proceeding, and bade himself remember to take a little digestive dose as soon as dinner was over.
"With a good copy here in its old place," he said, "I have no doubt that we shall not really miss it. Joyce, my dear, these beans are not sufficiently cooked. And, Mr. Craddock, I hope you will arrange that the transaction shall be quite private. We, Joyce and I, do not want the fact that I have had to sell the picture publicly known."
Lady Crowborough gave a little shrill laugh at this, without explanation of her amusement.
"It shall not be spoken of at all," said Craddock, "nor of course will the picture be seen in London. It shall go straight from your house to Philadelphia. Why, even your servants need not know. The copy will one morning take the place of the original, which I will arrange shall not be moved until the copy is ready. I will get a copyist to do the work here, if that is agreeable to you. Mr. Ward naturally will want to see his picture before the purchase is complete, but you need not see him. He will call at a time convenient to yourself. But should you care to see him, you will find him a very agreeable fellow."
Mr. Wroughton held up his hand which was thin almost to transparency.
"No, spare me the sight of my executioner," he said.
"I don't know where you get all these fine feelings from," remarked his mother. "Not from my side of the family. I'll see Mr. Ward for you, and see if I can't get him to buy some garnets of mine that I never wear. I shall like a month or two in Egypt with you, Philip."
"Too long a journey for you, mother, I am afraid," said Philip hastily.
"There! I knew you'd say something mean," said she, rising. "Well, I've finished my dinner, and I shall get to my Patience."
The night had fallen hot and starry and still, and though it was not to be expected that Mr. Wroughton should risk himself in the air after dinner, Craddock and Joyce at his suggestion strolled down to the river's edge in the gathering dusk. The even-song of birds was over, and bats wheeled in the darkening air, and moths hovered over the drowsy fragrance of the flower-beds. From somewhere not far away sounded the tinkle of a guitar accompanying some boyish tenor, and Joyce without thought, found herself wondering whether this was the voice of Charles of the unknown surname, or the anonymous fashioner of the omelette. The tune was tawdry enough, a number from some musical comedy, and though the performer had no particular skill either of finger or throat, the effect was young and fresh, and not in discord with the midsummer stillness. Something of the same impression was made on Arthur Craddock also, who listened with an indulgent smile on his big face that gleamed whitely in the faded day and dimness of stars.
"He does not know how to play or sing very much," he said, "but it is somehow agreeable though a little heart-rending to my middle-age. He is clearly quite young, his voice is unformed yet, and I should guess he is thinking of Her. Enviable young wretch! For though, Miss Joyce, we miserable ones go a thinking of one or another Her all our lives, they cease to think of us, just when we need them most."
There was considerable adroitness in this speech as a prelude to greater directness, and he looked at her out of his little grey eyes with some intentness. She seemed more Diana-like than ever in this grey glimmer of starlight: it really seemed possible that she would spring up from the earth to meet the tawny moon-disc that was even now just rising in the East, and charioteer it over the star-scattered fields of heaven. She seemed dressed for her part as Mistress of the Moon, all in white with a riband of silver in her bright hair.
"But what of us?" she said lightly. "Do not you men cease to think of us even before we are middle-aged?"
Suddenly it struck Craddock that no more heaven-sent opportunity for carrying out the second of the purposes that had brought him down here, could possibly be desired. He was in luck to-day, too: the business of the portrait had been carried through so smoothly, so easily. But immediately he became aware that he was not, in vulgar parlance, quite up to it. He needed support, he needed her father's consent, but above all he needed the imperative call, the hunger of the soul. Clearly, too, her words did not refer, however remotely, to herself and him, he felt that they were spoken quite impersonally. And immediately she changed the subject.
"I have to thank you," she said, "for trying to dissuade my father from selling the portrait. He told me you had suggested that he should not. That was kind of you."
He caressed the side of his face with the usual gratifying result.
"I found his mind was made up," he said, "though in accordance with your request I suggested he should not sell it. Always command me, Miss Joyce, and I will always fly on your quests. I am aware that I do not look particularly like a knight-errant, but there are motor-cars and railway-trains nowadays which transport us more swiftly and less hazardously than mettlesome chargers, especially if we can't ride."
He had again made himself an opening, but again he found when he came close that it was barricaded to him. But this time some hint of his intentions, though he could not manage to carry them into effect, was communicated to her, and conscious of them, and uncomfortable at them, she again changed the subject.
"Oh, I am not going to ask you to take the train to-night," she said. "The most I shall ask of you is that you play bézique with my father by and by. I play so badly that it is no fun for him. Hark, the singing is coming closer."
They had come to the landing-stage at the far end of the lawn, and looking up the tranquil lane of the river Joyce saw that the sound came from a Canadian canoe which was drifting downstream towards them. The boat itself was barely visible in the shadow of the trees: it was conjectured rather than seen by the outline of shirt-sleeves that outlined it, and it was on the further side of the stream. By this time the moon had swung clear to the horizon, and though the boat was still shadowed, Joyce and Craddock standing on the lawn were in the full white light. At the moment the musical comedy song came to an end, and the voice of some imprudent person from the canoe, forgetting the distinctness with which sound traverses water, spoke in a voice that was perfectly audible to Joyce, though not to Craddock.
"Charles, there's the girl of the punt and her fat white man," it observed.
Charles was more circumspect. His answer was a murmur quite inaudible, and instantly he thrummed his guitar again. The melody was new to Joyce, and though he might not have great skill in singing, he had a crisp enunciation, and the delicious old words were clearly audible:
"See the chariot at hand here of LoveWherein my Lady rideth."
Louder and more distinct every moment, as the canoe drifted closer came the beautiful lyric. The singer was not using more than half his voice, but as the distance between canoe and audience diminished, the light boyish tenor was sufficiently resonant to set the windless air a-quiver. Just as the canoe emerged into the blaze of moonlight opposite came the final stave, and the white-shirted singer sang from a full and open throat:
"Or have smelt o' the bud o' the briar?Or the nard in the fire?Or have tasted the bag of the bee?O, so white, O, so soft, O, so sweet is she!"
The silence of the night shut down like the lid of a jewel-box. Then after a little while came the drip of a paddle, and the canoe grew small and dim in the distance down-stream.
"Those jolly boys again," said Joyce.
Arthur Craddock heaved a long sigh, horribly conscious of his years and riches, and Joyce heard the creak of his shirt-front.
"That young man has diplomatic gifts," he said. "It is clear that he intended to serenade you, and he chose the far side of the river, so as to make it seem that he had no intention of any kind. It is a reasonable supposition that if serenading was his object, and it certainly was, he might be supposed not to see you standing here. So he serenaded with the open throat. If I tried to do the same, which sorely tempts me, I should only convince you that I had not an open throat but a sore one. Nobody has ever heard me sing, not even when I was as young as that white shirted youth in the canoe. He will paddle back to his tent before long, unless you stay here visible in the moonlight, and dream steadily about you till morning."
"Oh, what nonsense, Mr. Craddock," she said, knowing in the very secret place of her girl's heart that it was not nonsense at all. "Boats with guitars and singers go by every night, and often half the night. They can't all be serenading me."
"I cannot imagine why not. A Mormonism of serenading young men is not illegal. I would join them myself, Miss Joyce, if I could sing, and if I did not think that any Canadian canoe in which I embarked would instantly sink."
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