THE boys bent to their work in the study, as I called the parlour of my cottage; and all the noise there was came from the drowsy world without. It was mid-September; a hum of threshing machines trembled over the fields; the first freshness of autumn was in the crisp air; the cry of the pheasant rose up from the thicket on the hill; the note of the corn-crake from the meadows, where the grain was yet uncut. But the one street of Quinton was without sign of life or habitation.
The morning being that of Monday it was given by tradition to an hour's study of the Bible; the younger of the two lads being at Genesis, his brother at the second book of Chronicles. As they read before me in the silent room, and the ticking of the great Dutch clock was one of the few sounds coming to us from the house about, their dispositions were written as plainly as the lettering upon the signboard of the inn. Wilfred Smith, age twelve, the dreamer and the boy of promise; Jack Smith, age fourteen, the enemy of the immediate neighbourhood and the boy of performance. And now they sat, the one so well interested in the rising of the waters that the flood might have been at the very gates; the other bored to desperation by the narrative before him, his. thoughts away to the stable in the Manor House, to the kennels which Joe Martin governed, to the cubs which were so soon to serve the young hounds in their apprenticeship.
The education of the boys had been entrusted to me, some years before this September of which I write, by their uncle Jonathan Hutton, who owned the Manor House. He was not a popular man in the county, holding himself away from the many whom he despised; yet unable to establish, though coveting, intimacy with the few. The fact that he was a Quaker and at one time endeavoured to shout himself into heaven did not help him with the Church-folk; and his reprobation of all forms of sport, which he held to be the immediate creation of Lucifer, kept him out of touch with Sir Hubert Hill, the Master of the Hounds, and the set that moved in the baronet's train. Yet in many ways he was a man of some heart. He had undertaken the education of his sister's children—their father being a barrister who had waited twenty years for a practice, and was still expecting it—and he had done many a charity of which those who criticised him did not believe him capable. At this very moment of which I speak he was credited with possessing the intention to marry Julia Hill, the daughter of Sir Hubert; but as he had met the lady but twice, and her father had never broken bread in the Manor House, the populace snapped their fingers and said he was mad. Yet when I remembered that he possessed a million sterling—as all Quakers do—and that Julia Hill was on the wrong side of thirty, it seemed to me that his madness had a method in it; and I waited for the development with no little interest.
These things passed through my mind as the lads stuck to their Bibles; and the old clock ticked in the silent kitchen. It was now near to midday. A heavy waggon, loaded high with straw, rumbled up the village street; a girl came from the Duke of York to give the waggoner a mug of beer as he sat. A labourer, carrying his coat upon his arm, met a child who had run out of one of the gabled cottages, and held her high in his arms; other children came trooping up the road from the infant school; a local politician spread his dinner upon the bench before the inn, and enjoyed three hearers and a can of ale. Presently, the church clock struck twelve, and Jack shut his book with a slam; but the other continued to read. The narrative held him too powerfully. His mind was at Ararat and not in Quinton. But Jack, with the pursuit of labour suddenly ended, laid his head upon his arms and seemed to think.
"Well, Jack," said I, "what is it now?"
"I do wish I was Solomon," said he in the most melancholy voice imaginable.
"And why?" I asked.
"Because," said he, as if thinking deeply, "because I could swop wisdom for the pony race on Friday."
"You didn't tell me about any pony-race," I remarked. "I suppose you mean the steeplechases?"
"Yes, and there's a race open to all owners of ponies within a radius of twelve miles of Quinton—weight for age and fillies to carry three pounds less."
"But your uncle would never hear of it; he detests horse-racing. Who put the idea into your head? "
"Harry, the groom; he told me all about it yesterday. I know you won't say anything, sir, but he's entered 'Creeper.' I would jolly well like to ride him."
I shook my head as I rose from the table. The younger lad, reading almost aloud, came to the words "day and night shall not cease," and shut the book slowly. Then we all went out into the lane, for I was walking over to the Manor House with them, Jonathan having expressed a desire to see me on business of urgent importance. I had always refused to take up my residence at the great house, dreading the unsupportable dulness of the man's company; and the plea of literary work had secured to me the seclusion of the cottage in the village. Nor, for the matter of that, did Hutton express any rabid desire for my presence, and this summons to see him was a communication strange enough to be astonishing.
As we walked the meadow-path and through the stumps of the corn, Wilfred following like a dog at my heels, Jack alternately throwing a hard ball at a cow and practising with a catapult upon miscellaneous wildfowl, the subject of the pony-race was raised again.
"I can't see what he objects to," said the lad, with a fine touch of philosophy. "What's the harm of a good gallop? He ought to be glad that I've got a pony who will do credit to the family."
"You must not speak of your uncle in that way," said I; "he does not like horse-racing because there are so many rogues and vagabonds who follow it. I confess, however, that the county meeting on Friday does not come properly under the designation of a horse-race. It should be quiet enough and orderly enough if it is anything like other meetings I have attended here."
"But uncle hates everything," said Jack unabashed. "He calls men who play 'footer' violent persons and rioters."
"Yes," said Wilfred, suddenly coming up, "he told me the other night, when I was out in the summer-house reading The Ebb Tide, not to look below for my pleasures. He said if I would raise my eyes to the stars, I would see the gates of heaven. I looked ever so long, but I couldn't see anything."
"He meant figuratively, my lad; and both of you should remember that your uncle's objection to all sport is a matter of conscience; and matters of conscience are always to be respected."
"He likes cock-fighting, anyway," said Jack. "I came out the other morning before breakfast and the new 'game' was going for the old Spanish, and giving him beans. It was good fun, and uncle danced about and snapped his fingers just as though he was enjoying it awfully."
I could make no answer to this argumentum ad rem, and we walked on in silence, coming in another ten minutes to the great iron gates, and so to the long avenue of chestnuts which led up to the house. This, however, we did not follow; but took the short cut through the dingle and by the lake, which lay in a lonely hollow half a mile from the mansion. It was a balmy day, and the wildfowl were thick upon the dark water and upon the island, all rush-covered and bushy, which stood in the very centre of the great pool. But we met no one, and such flowers as we trod upon were of nature's gardening; for Jonathan Hutton was no friend to labour, and the servants upon his estate were to be numbered upon the hand. When at last the turrets and spires were to be seen, the bare windows and the tasteless terraces, plainly telling of the want of a woman's mind, Jack spoke again.
"Please, sir," said he, "if you could say a word for the pony——"
"I'll try," said I, for I saw that his heart was much set upon it; and with that we parted.
I found the old man—older in habits than in years—sitting in his library with a great mass of papers before him, and much disorder. He was sprucely dressed in broadcloth, and had a rose in his buttonhole—an ornament he had adopted since he saw Julia Hill at a flower-show. His delight at my coming was unconcealed; and he even called for his sherry, which was a singularly fine wine. I confess that this unwonted display caused me to remark that he was by no means ill-looking, his clean-shaven face recalling historic pictures of historic cardinals, and his fine figure telling of inherited and preserved physical power. But his voice was always thin and low; and his hard, blue eyes displayed neither emotion nor pity.
"I'm glad thou'rt punctual," said he; "I like punctuality in young men. It's about Friday that I was wishing to see thee. Thou'st heard that Sir Hubert Hill is coming to my house—on the Lord's work, Mr. Wills, the Lord's work."
"Indeed," said I, "it is news to me. What is the work in question?"
"Well, perhaps it's strange, friend; but it's just a bit of brick and mortar to set up the old parish church for the Lord's people. I'm not one of them, blessed be God; but as the early Christians had all things in common, so it's my duty to help others from the way of sin. Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God. And I'm lending my house for the meeting, and there'll be food for them that wish it when the talking's over. Oh, it'll be a great day for Quinton, young man!"
"Undoubtedly," said I; "there's the steeplechases in the morning——"
It was a foolish saying, and he turned upon me a devouring eye.
"Get thee behind me, Satan!" he cried in a loud voice, and raised his hands as though the foul thing were at his own door. I sighed for Jack and turned the subject.
"Well," said I, "it's very gratifying to think that your house is to be the centre of this work—but how can I help you?"
He drained a glass of sherry—since he knew Julia Hill he had declared that the doctor prescribed it—and bunched himself up to great confidence.
"That's what I sent for thee to make known," said he; "it's about the bit of palaver they'll be looking for when the folks are here. Thou'lt know that I'm a plain man, friend, and not given to long words as the Pharisees and Publicans. I've thought much and reaped nought; but I'm looking to thee to write me what should be said; and I sha'n't forget thee for thy labour."
"I'll do it with pleasure," said I, "if you'll give me an outline. It would be a gratification to help you in so small a matter."
"That's well said," he cried, "well said, and it shall be no great task, I'll warrant. Just put it down plain that I feel the Lord calls me to the work. Tell them that I'm no exhorter, but I can write me name down as big as the rest of them. And if thou couldst slip in a word which would move them to a crack of laughter—eh?"
He giggled like a girl at the notion; and I promised to do as he wished; and thus took my leave of him, but not before I had said a word for Jack.
"By the by," I remarked, "there's to be some pony-galloping for the boys round about on Friday; Jack thinks he would like to try 'Creeper'——"
"Ha," said he sharply, "he thinks he would, does he? The devil is very busy with young souls just now, Mr. Wills. But we must flog it out of them—even as Solomon exhorted us."
The tone promised badly for Master Jack, and I took my leave hurriedly, crossing the park again to my cottage. It was clear that although "Creeper" was entered, he would not run; and I confess that a sporting instinct prompted me strongly to take the side of the lad. But how could I help him? Certainly, I could not side with him against his uncle; nor could I, while wearing in the village the sober reputation of a scholar, consent to appear in the guise of an amateur jockey. It remained to be seen if the boy were better able to act for himself than I had been for him.
When the pair of them came to me again at three o'clock the prospects of the thing did not look alluring. Wilfred had the red relic of tears in his eyes; Jack was moody and sullen. He had been flogged I knew; for thus it was always that when the elder lad was whipped, the younger shed the tears. But no mention was made of the affair, save that in construing a line of Cornelius Nepos Master Jack suddenly blurted out "I'll lick him yet," and then hurriedly resumed his reading. I thought it wise to refer in no way to the outbreak, nor did I speak of my interview with the old man since the upshot of it had been conveyed in so forcible a manner; but when five o'clock struck and the pair rose to go, the boy said suddenly and with wrath in his tongue—
"Please, sir, we're not to come on Friday!"
"Is that a message from your uncle?" I asked.
"Yes; he thinks there'll be a row in the village, and that's bad for us."
"Yes, and we're to have a holiday," interposed the other.
"Very well," said I, "and I think your uncle is wise. But I shall see you to-morrow."
They assented, running off, and I occupied myself during the evening composing an oration for the love-stricken Quaker. I made it short and full of modesty; concluding it with a story new enough to be fresh in Quinton, but old enough to be done with in town. On the following morning I carried the work to the Manor House, and the old fellow rubbed his hands in thankfulness at the prospect of delivering the humility and the humour before his well-beloved.
"Oh, it'll be a great day, a great day altogether," said he. "Thou'st done very well, Mr. Wills, and I like thy work. But I think we'll make it two hundred pounds, eh? Two hundred pounds, they'll not do better than that, eh?"
I said they would not; and after he had recited many of my lines in a thin drawl which was melancholy to hear, he chuckled over the story again; giving it off with many bows and gestures to the books in his library and the empty chairs. But it was hard work to coach him; and when he had it but moderately well, it was time for me to look after the boys. As I left he asked me to the gathering, an honour I had scarce looked for, since he was one of those who regard the mere knowledge of the classics as something a little better than playing on the flute, and distinctly inferior to the art of cooking.
"Come up thyself," said he, "for I shall look for thee to be at my hand. There's women folk to be present, and we're smartening up a bit. Didst see the roses in the parlour?"
The parlour was the great hall, a magnificent chamber now almost hidden in banks of beautiful flowers. There were palms, too, in the passages; and a coming and going of servants the like to which the Manor House had not known for a decade. I saw that the compelling influence of woman had already been busy with him; and as I walked through the park, many signs were there of the expectancy of social triumph. That Jonathan Hutton was to entertain Sir Hubert Hill and a couple of Colonial bishops to boot was indeed a thing to ring through the neighbourhood in song and story; and the promise of it had already been told even in the remoter villages. Nor did I wonder that those working for him shook their heads dubiously, and wondered if the end of all things were at hand.
I have said that I walked through the park; but my steps did not take me on that Thursday afternoon to the cottage; for the boys were enjoying their customary half holiday. Free of them, I put my pipe in my mouth and strolled through the woods on the high road; but scarce had I got out upon the hill than I saw Master Jack mounted on "Creeper" in the meadows below, and with him was Harry, the groom, apparently engaged in the delivery of a homily. The circumstance was curious, to put it mildly; and when later the pony was galloped smartly, but only for a couple of furlongs, I admit that I entertained suspicions. These I kept to myself, since I could not rebuke the lad for galloping his own pony; and, fearing to see something of which I should be compelled to take notice, I hurried on. Nor did I see any more of him until the event of which I come now to speak.
On the Friday morning, Quinton awoke with much rejoicing. The church bells were ringing early— perhaps as a counter-blast to the devil's work upon the moor—and thoroughbreds in large numbers were tethered before nine o'clock in the stables of the "Duke of York." I heard the booming of drums and the blast of horns almost as soon as it was light; and from eight o'clock a procession of rogues, vagabonds, showmen, thieves, and race-course types generally passed to the scene of action. But it was not until two o'clock that I followed them; and, indulging in the extravagance of the guinea stand, waited— for the pony-race.
This, I confess, was the one motive which induced me to risk the anger of Jonathan Hutton, and to keep close company with that which he called Satan. I had seen the "correct card" early in the morning, and it told me that amongst the ponies running was one named "Creeper," and that his rider was Jack King. For some time I had my doubts; but even then I could not conceive it possible that Master Jack had really eluded the vigilance and dared the wrath of the old man. No sooner were the ponies on the course, however, than I saw the boy himself, dressed up in a great blouse of pink silk, a white cap upon his head, and the smartest of white breeches crossing his saddle. And while he went for the canter, I stood petrified; waiting every moment to hear the shout of Jonathan Hutton, or to see him burst upon the course in a frenzy of shame and fury.
But the apparition never came. As a hundred thoughts rushed up in my mind, as I asked myself, What will follow this? Where is the Quaker? How has the boy got the pony away unobserved? a shout from the crowd told me that they were "off." In that moment hucksters left their wares; the showmen ran from their shows to the ropes; the bands ceased to play; the roar of the bookmakers rose up deafeningly; the crowd swayed and shouted; ladies stood on the tops of the stand; waiters halted with napkins on their arms. And from the remote hill, upon which the black specks were now to be seen, a low sound of roaring, as of a distant train which had entered a tunnel, was borne to our ears; it swelled and gained force as the opening swell of an organ; it became a thunder of noise like the sound of an army triumphant; it swept at last upon those in the stands, and we joined our voices in crying out as one cries only upon a race-course when the distance bell has rung.
Whether any man in that crowd shouted with more vigour than I displayed is a question I have no interest in. It was not until the race was done that I became aware of the display I had made. But I had no hat when the ponies passed the judge; and I found myself calling out "Jack wins! Jack wins!" long after the others had come to silence again. Then I waited for the hoisting of the number as though hundreds of my own hung upon the venture—for it was a win by a neck—and when all was right I ran away quickly to my cottage to get a new hat and to think.
At the bottom of the village I met Wilfred. He was crying, not bitterly, but silently. I asked him what the matter was, and he said,
"Jack will get whacked."
"Yes," said I, trying to look dignified even without a hat, "he has done wrong; but that is not your fault, my boy. There is no need whatever for you to cry about it."
He was not comforted at this, but cried the more, following me to the cottage as though seeking protection. When we came at length to the garden gate, he made a very strange remark.
"They'll never find him," he blurted out suddenly between his tears.
"Find whom?" I asked with my hand upon the latch.
"Uncle," said he, looking up pitifully into my face.
"Won't find him?" I ejaculated. "What in the name of goodness do you mean?"
"I—I dare not tell you, sir," said he. "I swore to Jack I wouldn't."
He stopped crying, and remained a picture of earnestness and of dismay. The thing had come upon me so suddenly, the moment of it was so deep, that for some minutes I did not know what to say. Then at last I asked him,
"Do you mean to tell me that Jack has committed such an outrage as to hide your uncle?"
"Oh, not to hide him," said he, "anybody could find him. But I swore to Jack sir, indeed I did."
Before I could ask him more, he had fled from my cross-examination; but I waited only a moment to get a hat, and then ran up to the Manor House as I had not run since I left Fenners. At the cross-roads a labourer met me, one of Jonathan's men; and he confirmed the amazing news.
"Be going to find the maister, sur? Then thee'll not find him at t' house, nor nowhere that I know on. Aw'm thinking he's been doun to ee horse-racin'. He aren't been seen since sunrise."
I passed on, even hurrying my pace. It was clear now that the boy had gone to extremes, of whose consequences I dare not think. I judged that his career was ended, and that an early train would see him once more into the bosom of the barrister's family; in which case my pupils and my living would leave me in the same hour. Yet all this being apparent, the disappearance of his uncle was a thing I could in no way account for. What could he have done with the old man? How could he have hidden him? Surely not in any of the rooms of the house, for then discovery would have come in an hour. Not in the stables, for they were full of new servants. Nor was there any place I could find in my mind which would allow me to believe for one moment the amazing tale the younger boy had hinted at and the labourer had confirmed.
This conclusion carried me to the park gates, where I found three servants confabulating in awestruck tones. They told me the tale I had already heard, Jonathan Hutton had been seen at sunrise, but not since. As he was wanted in the house to give a hundred directions, servants had been sent to the doctor's, to Sir Hubert Hill's, even to the race-course;. but no news of him was to be had. They told me, further, that there was a consultation then being held in the hall; and, determined to join it, I took the short cut across the park, plunging into the glen, and so by the lake, then all deserted and utterly green in the play of the sinking sun.
Now, I had almost passed from the valley, had come, in fact, to the point where the rarely used path quits the side of the lake and turns up through the home wood, where there fell upon my ears the most singular sound I have ever heard. It was a moaning and a crying, but more than this, there were yells and fierce exclamations, threats and even prayers commingled with it. I could not for some while get any notion whence came the noise; but a little later the explanation flashed upon me suddenly. The crying that I heard was from the island in the centre of the lake; and the voice that raised the hulloballoo was the voice or Jonathan Hutton.
"Help, help!" he called again and again. "John, dost thee not hear? Oh Lord, save thy servant! Jack, I'll break every bone in thy body! Lord, be merciful!—and the company coming——" And then he fell to crying "Help! Help!" again most pitifully.
When I had heard these sounds for a moment, and the extraordinary fact that the old man should be shouting there on the island of the lake, no longer held me speechless, I put my hands to my mouth and cried to him in reply.
"Halloa!" I shouted, "is that you, Mr. Hutton? "We've been looking for you everywhere."
At this he came running out from a small clump of willows; and seeing me, his joy was unfeigned.
"Oh, man, Heaven be praised! is it thou?" he cried. "Bring the boat to me! bring it at once—the Lord is very merciful!"
"Whatever have you been doing there?" I asked, making pretence of complete ignorance. "They have been looking for you in the house these three hours."
"Ay, the dolts, the sluggards!" he screamed in reply. "They shall go forth in the morning, every one of them! Man, it's eight hours I've been here without sup or bite, I'll do no murder, Mr, Wills, but I'll go near to it."
"This is indeed dreadful," I cried; "how came you to be there?"
"It's my nephew," he wailed, wringing his. hands; "my nephew that I've tended like one of mine. He put me across in the boat to be alone here. Dost not remember that it's Friday, and the company coming, God forgive him! I wanted to learn the bit of a discourse, and he was to come fetch me in an hour. Oh, I could put a curse upon him!"
"But where is the boat?" I asked, not seeing it on my side of the lake; "you must not stay there another minute."
"It's round where the old house was," he cried; "bring it to me, man, don't lose a minute. I shall be the fair disgrace of the whole parish."
I ran round quickly to the old boat-house now, inwardly laughing as I had not laughed for many a day. As the matter had ended thus, with Jonathan rescued in time to greet his guests, I saw nothing but farce where ten minutes since I had looked for tragedy. But I quailed for Jack, and was just imagining the punishment that would be chosen for him when I found the boat. She was sunk in three feet of water, and there was a hole as big as the top of a barrel in her starboard side. Then I sat down in the boat-house and laughed no more.
"Well, art thee coming?" was the cry presently from the other shore.
"The boat is sunk," said I, "and how we're to get you off, heaven knows."
"What wert saying?" he asked, as though he could not take it in.
"There's a hole in the boat as big as a bucket," I yelled.
"No lies to me, please," he cried next, still unconvinced, and now full of passion.
"Come and see for yourself," I replied, meeting his rudeness with the sarcasm.
"Mr. Wills," said he, now softer, "I'm justly punished for my sins; don't be hard upon me; bring me the boat."
"Mr. Hutton," said I, "the boat is under water as I have told you. I could no more bring it to you than I could carry you the Manor House."
"Then the devil take him!" cried he, swearing probably for the first time in his life; and after that I really believe that he burst into tears.
"Mr. Hutton," said I next, moved to sympathy for him, "if there's anything to be done to help you, I'll do it; but there's no boat within five miles of here, and how we're to get you off, I can't for the life of me see. But I'm going up to the house to bring help."
"That's right, that's right, indeed!" he replied. "Oh, man, to be left like this and the company coming!"
I waited to hear no more from him, but ran up to the house with all the speed I could make. Not that I had a notion in my head, for my mind was as empty as a bladder; but it was obvious that a rope must first be got—and servants to assist me. These came readily enough at my cry; and, neglecting the shouts of the housekeeper, who told me that the Bishop of somewhere or other was already in the drawing-room, I routed out the stable lads, and, getting what rope we could, we all set off for the pond together. The guests were arriving in numbers as we went, but Julia Hill and her father had yet to come.
On my return to the glen, so soon, in fact, as I could get a view of the lake from the thicket, I saw that the scene on the island had changed. The old man was now walking up and down furiously among the reeds, alternately raising his hands to heaven, and shaking his fist at the two lads who stood upon the other shore. The elder boy seemed to be wrangling with him; and presently Jack put his hands in his pockets most impudently, and sat upon a knoll to watch our efforts. When I came up he condescended to talk to me.
"I've been telling uncle that I'll get him off if he'll say nothing about it," said he, "but he won't agree, and he may just stop there."
"Jack," said I, "you deserve as good a thrashing as boy ever had."
"But 'Creeper' won," he replied, "and I don't care if he kills me. What are you going to do with that rope—drag him through the weeds? Won't he be green when he comes out, though!"
This was true enough, for the lake was full of weed and slime; but I saw no alternative. It was impossible obviously, it seemed to me, to get the old man off by any means other than a rope; and he, at any rate, did not fear the immersion.
"Mr. Wills," he kept crying, "a little greater haste, please! Good lads, be quick with it! Was that a carriage I heard upon the drive? Jack, I'll kill thee in the morning—oh, and the company coming!"
Thus he cried out continually, while we were making our best haste in splicing the ropes, and Jack was sitting upon the knoll whistling most impudently. At last we got a line together, and, having attached a great block of wood to it, we hurled it towards the island. It fell short by six feet—and that was all the rope we had.
At this, Jack whistled louder than before. The rest of us stood looking blankly one at the other. The old man sat upon a stump, and buried his face in his hands. In the distance we saw a number of black specks upon the hillside. Some of the guests were coming down to find out what had happened to their host.
"Uncle," said Jack, ceasing to whistle suddenly, "here's Miss Hill and her father coming to see you."
"I'll not see them!" yelled he. "I'll not have them here!"
"I could get you off in a minute if you wouldn't whack me," cried Jack.
"Is it really them, Mr. Wills?" asked the old fellow turning to me.
"There's no doubt of it, I'm afraid," shouted I.
"Devil!" said he, shaking his fist at the boy again.
"They're coming right over the hill now," cried Jack quite unabashed.
"Could I be got off quick?" asked the old man, suddenly sobered.
"In two minutes," said Jack, "if you'll promise."
"Then I'll promise," said he, "and the Lord forgive the weakness."
Jack had jumped off the knoll now, and I waited with infinite curiosity to see what he would do—how solve the problem which baffled so completely the wits of the six of us then gathered upon the bank. But his first words settled the matter.
"You fellows," said he, "kick off that boat-house door."
We did as he ordered, half ashamed of ourselves for not thinking of it.
"Hitch the rope round the broken hinge, and hold my coat."
As he talked, he had thrown off his coat and waistcoat; and brought from the old boat-house a long punt-pole which had seen no usage for many years. On our part, we had the door down in a moment, for it was exceeding rotten; and directly it was in the water Jack was astride of it. But the figures were now very near, and 1 could make out the form of Julia Hill, she dressed gaily in white with a gray cloak about her shoulders. The old man saw her at the same moment, and his voice of pleading passed from a roar to a husky muttering; while Jack, managing the improvised punt with lively skill, brought her up to the island; and we waited for the end in silence.
"Uncle," said Jack, holding out his hand, "sit down and don't excite yourself. You fellows, haul away, or she'll sink! Now!"
We hauled, at his words, with ferocious strength, and the punt, rushing under the water, came quickly to us. The old man's legs were to the height of his hips in the green slime; but for the matter of that so were Jack's; and had it not been for the speed with which we pulled them through the weeds, the thing would have sunk altogether. When ultimately they reached the shore, they were greener than the grass, and while they stood shaking themselves Julia Hill and her father came up to greet them.
But the old man shook his fist in their faces, and—for their laughter was not disguised—he set off at a run towards the Manor House. An hour afterwards I learnt that the Church meeting was postponed, and that all the guests had gone home without partaking of his hospitality.
When I saw him next day he was wrapped in a greatcoat, and sat before a big fire in his study. I asked him after his health, and he answered testily,
"My health's very well, thank God!"
"You have caught no chill?" I asked.
"Would I be sitting here if I had?"
"It was a monstrous thing to do, I must say," said I.
"Ay, that's true," he replied, thinking deeply.
"And the lad should be punished somehow."
"I'm not so sure of it," said he. "Didst ever hear, Mr. Wills, of an old man about to make a fool of himself——"
"I don't understand," said I.
"Then I'll tell thee," he cried. "If ever they say that I'm to have a helpmate here, thou canst say it's a lie—from me."
I saw his point—he had left his love in the pond.
"I shall take good care to act as you tell me," said I. "But what are you going to do with the boy?"
"I'm going to give him five pounds," said he, "and I'll save money then. Dost remember that I promised the parson two hundred? Well, he may whistle for it, man."
He chuckled heartily at the thought. A moment later he made another remark. "Ay," said he, "and his pony won! Good lad, good lad!"