A Cautious Youth  (1896) 
by W. Pett Ridge

From The Idler, vol 10, 1896-1897. Accompanying illustrations omitted.

Miss Betterton is willing, or she hints to her roommate. And so, too, is George Wraight, the party of the second part: else why should he invite her for a boating trip? But would the situation be the same after the trip?




MR. GEORGE WRAIGHT had, after great consideration, asked Miss Betterton to come up the river on the Cardinal Wolsey, and little Miss Betterton, after some coy hesitancy, and some debate with Miss Oliffe who shared her room over Oliffe & Oliffe's, had decided to accept it. Miss Oliffe had strongly urged that the invitation should be declined, and this had settled the matter.

"You shouldn't ask my advice, dear," said Miss Oliffe, tartly, "if you didn't mean to take it. Mr. Wraight's a very nice gentleman, and he parts his hair in the middle, and always lifts his hat in a well-bred manner, but I don't think it's the correct thing to go out with any gentleman unless——"

"That's just why I'm doing it, dear."

"You'll find out your mistake some day," said Miss Oliffe, punching her pillow with some annoyance. "Mark my words."

"It isn't as though I was like some girls," urged little Miss Betterton. "I'm not silly."

"So you say, dear."

"Are you fond of Mr. Wraight, Oliffe?"

"I wouldn't accept him," said Miss Oliffe, vehemently, "not if he went down on his bended knees. Have you said your prayers?"

There was equal tumult in the mind of Mr. Wraight in regard to the river trip. The idea had come suddenly to Mr. Wraight that being quite twenty-two the time was approaching when it would be wise to settle down, and compose himself for married life. This was partly suggested by the fact that an uncle had generously offered to set him up in business in Hackney.

"She's the only girl I ever had the least 'ankering after," said Mr. Wraight to his looking-glass, "and I suppose I can't do better than offer her my 'and and my 'eart. But I shall be as cautious as I can, and the leastest thing will put me off."

It really seemed that everything promised well. At the Old Swan Pier was Miss Flora Betterton, looking much prettier in the eyes of Mr. Wraight than any young person had ever been permitted in this world hitherto to look, and a hat that was perfectly bewildering, Mr. Wraight's hand shook as he purchased tickets at the wooden office; when, down on the pier, Miss Betterton began in her bright decided way to talk, he was forced to hold tightly, with his brown gloved hand, the iron chain, to prevent himself from falling, in consequence of dizziness, into the water.

"The oddest thing!" exclaimed Miss Betterton. "Just along in Lower Thames Street—do you mind doing up this last button of my glove, Mr. Wraight? It is so difficult, you can't think—along in Lower Thames Street, who should I come across but Mr. Mervale."

"Ho!" said Mr. Wraight. "This button won't fasten. Your arm's too plump."

"My arm's all right," said Miss Betterton, "it's the glove that's wrong. What was I talking about?"

"You were saying——"

"Oh, I remember! About Mr. Mervale. Well, he's just over from South Africa on a holiday, you know."

"I didn't know," said George, rather gruffly. "Don't know the man from Adam."

"I'll introduce you presently," said Miss Betterton. "I expect he's gone down to the other end of the boat. You'll like him awfully; he's grown so good-looking."

"Good looks ain't everything," remarked George.

"We used to be in an elocution class together," went on Miss Bettorton, beamingly. "You don't go in for reciting do you, Mr. Wraight?"

"Singin's my line," said George.

"I suppose there'll be something of the kind going on as we come back. If I'm asked—— Oh, the boat's moving!"

"I've got something I want to ask you presently," said George.

"I'm the worst one you ever met for riddles," she said. "I only know that one about 'When is a jar not a——' "

"It isn't exactly a riddle," explained George, awkwardly. "It's more important than any riddles; perhaps, if it's quite agreeable, I'll mention it on the return journey."

"Just as you like," said Miss Betterton agreeably. "We've got all the afternoon before us. I'm glad there's an orchestra on board, aren't you? I wouldn't give a penny for the river if it wasn't for the music on board."

"Music 'ath charms," quoted George with an effort, "to soothe the savage breast."

"Indeed," said Miss Betterton, coldly, a little hurt at the remark.

"Don't misunderstand me," said George, anxiously. "I wasn't arguing for a single moment that you——"

"Here's Mr. Mervale. Let me introduce you."

Mervale, a tall, clipped-bearded man with a Kentish accent and a quiet manner, said he was pleased to meet George, and George said (but his looks did not corroborate the statement) that he was proud to make the acquaintance of Mervale.

Mervale offered George his cigar-case, and George selected two, placing one in his waistcoat pocket to smoke, as he said, some other time. It was impossible to deny that Mervale was, if a silent, yet and attentive man. Just as George was thinking over the matter of refreshments, Mervale went below and returned with lemonade and claret for Miss Betterton; when the idea of going to the side of the vessel the better to see the Houses of Parliament struck him, he found that Mervale was already conducting the lady thither.

"Seems to me," said George, sitting back on his seat, "that I'm getting left. I shall 'ave to set about this matter seriously."

A sheet of letter paper lay at George's foot. He picked it up absently, and closing his eyes thought out the form of declaration. By the time Miss Betterton had returned to her seat, George had made up his mind.

"Miss Betterton," he said, twisting the slip of paper nervously, "that little matter that I mentioned just now. 'Ave you ever thought about getting married?"

Miss Betterton turned her pretty head away modestly.

"I don't know that I've ever paid much attention to the subject," she said.

"Well," urged George, "it's just as well to look these unpleasant facts—what I mean to say, it's no use putting everything off till the last moment."

"There's certainly something in that," agreed Miss Betterton. She arranged the lace edging of her scarlet parasol with exceeding care, "My mother always used to warn us girls against procrastination."

"Against who?" enquired George, sharply. Miss Betterton explained. "Oh, I see what you mean. But what I was speaking of, and what I wanted—what I wanted to ask you was——"

George assures me on his honour as a draper and a man, that a glass of water—nay, a mere sip of water at that moment would have saved him. His mouth seemed parched, his tongue unwilling. Nervously he unrolled the twisted sheet of note-paper and glanced at it. The writing was that of the decorous young lady beside him, and the first lines read thus:

" 'Alfonso, dearest, why do you remain away from everyone that holds you dear? I, who desire your presence near to me, would fain lay down my life to see thine eyes. Come——' "

George read no more. He crumpled the paper hastily, and the young lady turned to him.

"What you wanted to ask me was what?" enquired Miss Betterton.

" 'Pon me word, I forget," declared George, lamely, "My memory's going like anything. I shall forget me own name presently."

"But can't you try to remember?"

George rubbed the top of his straw hat as one endeavouring to stimulate thought, and frowned at Blackfriars Bridge.

"It's gone," he said, despairingly.

"Perhaps you'll think of it again presently," suggested Miss Betterton, with some coyness.

"Perhaps," answered George. He folded the sheet of note-paper. "I fancy," he said, meaningly, "that this belongs to you."

Miss Betterton flushed with great confusion, and, taking the sheet hastily, placed it in her pocket at the back of her white skirt.

"How careless of me," she said, with much annoyance. "I am stupid. Have I just dropped it? I wouldn't have you look at that for worlds."

George went to the stern of the steamboat to smoke a cigar with the satisfied air of a man who has stopped himself on the very brink of a precipice, and Mervale from South Africa took his place.

"Pulled meself up," said George to himself, "just in time. Another moment and I should 'ave been let in for it."

It was an awkward day for George, but it might have been much worse. To have ascertained the perfidy of Miss Betterton, and to have been forced to wear during the whole of the day a domino of geniality would have been intolerable. The fortunate presence on the voyage of Mervale—who really seemed a very decent, quiet, generous sort of fellow—enabled George, when he could no longer keep up the pretence of good temper, to leave Miss Betterton in the care of the man from South Africa, returning when his equanimity was temporarily restored. Such was George's thankfulness to Mervale, that he determined to disclose to him the information concerning Miss Betterton's foreign friend in order to place him upon his guard.

"You are dull all at once, Mr. Wraight," complained Miss Betterton. "When we started you were quite bright. Does the river journey upset you?"

"No," said George, curtly, "it don't."

"That's Richmond Park over there, isn't it? Be nice to go there some day, wouldn't it? A fine afternoon it would be rather pleasant."

"All right for them that like it."

"I believe you're almost a bit of a cynic, Mr. Wraight," said Miss Betterton, with an attractive air of reproof.

"It's enough to make anybody," said George, gloomily.

"I wish you'd tell me what it is that's gone wrong, I'm sure there's something."

"I tell you there isn't," said George, doggedly.

"You're not cross—you're not put at all because I'm speaking to Mr. Mervale? You see he's such an old friend."

"I don't mind you talking to him," declared George, honestly. "Seems a straightforward sort of chap enough."

"Well, then," persisted Miss Betterton, "it must be something else. Is it anything I've said?"

"Look 'ere," said Geoi^e, goaded to desperation, "you let things be as they are. Nag at me too much, and I shall say something that I shall be sorry for after. Now you understand, don't you?"

"You are a peculiar young gentleman," said Miss Betterton. "I can't half make you out."

George is not prepared to offer any explanation, but he declares that on the return journey, as soon as the sun had gone down, and the insinuating twilight came, and lamps on board were lighted, he found his heart warming again with an affection for Miss Betterton. He tried to think of the compromising letter which he had read that morning, but even this document could not prevent him from admiring her. Whilst the other ladies on board were dusty and tired, with hair straight that once was wavy, and with temper fractious that once was equable, Miss Betterton looked as delightful and chattered away as good-temperedly as ever.

George went so far once as to stroke her wrist, but Miss Betterton, glancing at the silent Mervale, spoke to George reprovingly. Passing by Kew, singing commenced, and cheerful young gentlemen tipped their hats back and sang rollicking songs about meeting ladies on a 'bus, and about having too much to drink, and of being locked up, and of other diverting incidents; and young ladies closing their eyes sang, in a shrill stolid soprano, ballads of great emotion. When Miss Betterton's turn came, that young lady responded with alacrity (for it is not on board a steamboat that one may affect to excuse oneself; else is one incontinently passed over).

"I'm not in very good voice for singing," explained Miss Betterton to the circle, "but I can recite a piece if you like."

The silent Mervale moved forward, the better to hear, and there was a gallant murmur of encouragement.

"Is it long?" asked a lad.

"Depends," answered Miss Betterton, sharply, "what you call long. It is called 'The Spanish Maiden to her Lover,' and it's written in what is called blank verse."

"Fire away," said the lad.

Miss Betterton glanced at the admiring Mervale and rose. George, standing at the back out of sight, prepared to listen casually. It occurred to him, he tells me, at that moment, what a proud man he would be if he were to possess some day for a wife a lady so gifted in elocutionary gifts who could entertain company on early closing evenings in this refined and artistic manner.

"The Spanish Maiden to her Lover."

Miss Betlerton coughed and looked severely round until everyone had ceased talking. Then again the title.

"The Spanish Maiden to her Lover."

"Is that all?" asked the lad who had previously interrupted.

Miss Betterton killed him with a glance of reproof, and Mervale looked at him in a manner that caused the interrupting lad to take a serious complexion. Miss Betterton commenced her recitation in a high aggrieved tone—

"Alfonso, dearest, why do you remain
Away from everyone that holds you dear,
I, who desire your presence near to me,

George could only restrain himself from rushing forward by holding on tightly to the white painted rail at the side of the steamer. The moment that the recitation was over, he forced his way insistently through the congratulating crowd and shook hands affectionately with the flushed artiste.

"I've thought of what I wanted to ask you this morning," he said softly.


"What I wanted to say was would you kindly go so far out of your way as to consent to become my wife? "

"Well," said Miss Belterton, calmly, "I don't know but what I might have done if you had asked me before. But down at Hampton Court Mr. Mervale was kind enough to make the same offer, and so—well, you're too late."

George Wraight, in relating to me this story, said that he is now engaged to Miss Oliffe, and wishes to remark in conclusion that what it seems to him to amount to is simply this. Some people {says George) are born lucky and some ain't. For his part, it seems to him that he belongs to the ain'ts.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1930, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 92 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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