The Incomplete Amorist/Book 4/Chapter XXII
The night kept its promise. Betty, slipping from the sleeping house into the quiet darkness, seemed to slip into a poppy-fringed pool of oblivion. The night laid fresh, cold hands on her tired eyes, and shut out many things. She paused for a minute on the bridge to listen to the restful restless whisper of the water against the rough stone.
Her eyes growing used to the darkness discerned the white ribbon of road unrolling before her. The trees were growing thicker. This must be the forest. Certainly it was the forest.
"How dark it is," she said, "how dear and dark! And how still! I suppose the trams are running just the same along the Boulevard Montparnasse,—and all the lights and people, and the noise. And I've been there all these months—and all the time this was here—this!"
Paris was going on—all that muddle and maze of worried people. And she was out of it all; here, alone.
Alone? A quick terror struck at the heart of her content. An abrupt horrible certainty froze her—the certainty that she was not alone. There was some living thing besides herself in the forest, quite near her—something other than the deer and the squirrels and the quiet dainty woodland people. She felt it in every fibre long before she heard that faint light sound that was not one of the forest noises. She stood still and listened.
She had never been frightened of the dark—of the outdoor dark. At Long Barton she had never been afraid even to go past the church-yard in the dark night—the free night that had never held any terrors, only dreams.
But now: she quickened her pace, and—yes—footsteps came on behind her. And in front the long straight ribbon of the road unwound, gray now in the shadow. There seemed to be no road turning to right or left. She could not go on forever. She would have to turn, sometime—if not now, yet sometime—in this black darkness, and then she would meet this thing that trod so softly, so stealthily behind her.
Before she knew that she had ceased to walk, she was crouched in the black between two bushes. She had leapt as the deer leaps, and crouched, still as any deer.
Her dark blue linen gown was one with the forest shadows. She breathed noiselessly—her eyes were turned to the gray ribbon of road that had been behind her. She had heard. Now she would see.
She did see—something white and tall and straight. Oh, the relief of the tallness and straightness and whiteness! She had thought of something dwarfed and clumsy—dark, misshapen, slouching beast-like on two shapeless feet. Why were people afraid of tall white ghosts?
It passed. It was a man—in a white suit. Just an ordinary man. No, not ordinary. The ordinary man in France does not wear white. Nor in England, except for boating and tennis and—
Flannels. Yes. The lunatic who boiled his brains in the sun!
Betty's terror changed colour as the wave changes from green to white, but it lost not even so much of its force as the wave loses by the change. It held her moveless till the soft step of the tennis shoes died away. Then softly and hardly moving at all, moving so little that not a leaf of those friendly bushes rustled, she slipped off her shoes: took them in her hand, made one leap through the crackling, protesting undergrowth and fled back along the road, fleet as a greyhound.
She ran and she walked, very fast, and then she ran again and never once did she pause to look or listen. If the lunatic caught her—well, he would catch her, but it should not be her fault if he did.
The trees were thinner. Ahead she saw glimpses of a world that looked quite light, the bridge ahead. With one last spurt she ran across it, tore up the little bit of street, slipped through the door, and between the garden trees to her pavilion.
She looked very carefully in every corner—all was still and empty. She locked the door, and fell face downward on her bed.
Vernon in his studio was "thinking things over" after the advice of Miss Voscoe in much the same attitude.
"Oh," said Betty, "I will never go out at night again! And I will leave this horrible, horrible place the very first thing to-morrow morning!"
But to-morrow morning touched the night's events with new colours from its shining palette.
"After all, even a lunatic has a right to walk out in the forest if it wants to," she told herself, "and it didn't know I was there, I expect, really. But I think I'll go and stay at some other hotel."
She asked, when her "complete coffee" came to her, what the mad gentleman did all day.
"He is not so stupid as Mademoiselle supposes," said Marie. "All the artists are insane, and he, he is only a little more insane than the others. He is not a real mad, all the same, see you. To-day he makes drawings at Montigny."
"Which way is Montigny?" asked Betty. And, learning, strolled, when her coffee was finished, by what looked like the other way.
It took her to the river.
"It's like the Medway," said Betty, stooping to the fat cowslips at her feet, "only prettier; and I never saw any cowslips here—You dears!"
Betty would not look at her sorrow in this gay, glad world. But she knew at last what her sorrow's name was. She saw now that it was love that had stood all the winter between her and Vernon, holding a hand of each. In her blindness she had called it friendship,—but now she knew its real, royal name.
She felt that her heart was broken. Even the fact that her grief was a thing to be indulged or denied at will brought her no doubts. She had always wanted to be brave and noble. Well, now she was being both.
A turn of the river brought to sight a wide reach dotted with green islands, each a tiny forest of willow saplings and young alders.
There was a boat moored under an aspen, a great clumsy boat, but it had sculls in it. It would be pleasant to go out to the islands.
She got into the boat, loosened the heavy rattling chain and flung it in board, took up the sculls and began to pull. It was easy work.
"I didn't know I was such a good oar," said Betty as the boat crept swiftly down the river.
As she stepped into the boat, she noticed the long river reeds straining down stream like the green hair of hidden water-nixies.
She would land at the big island—the boat steered easily and lightly enough for all its size—but before she could ship her oars and grasp at a willow root she shot past the island.
Then she remembered the streaming green weeds.
"Why, there must be a frightful current!" she said. What could make the river run at this pace—a weir—or a waterfall?
She turned the boat's nose up stream and pulled. Ah, this was work! Then her eyes, fixed in the exertion of pulling, found that they saw no moving banks, but just one picture: a willow, a clump of irises, three poplars in the distance—and the foreground of the picture did not move. All her pulling only sufficed to keep the boat from going with the stream. And now, as the effort relaxed a little it did not even do this. The foreground did move—the wrong way. The boat was slipping slowly down stream. She turned and made for the bank, but the stream caught her broadside on, whirled the boat round and swept it calmly and gently down—towards the weir—or the waterfall.
Betty pulled two strong strokes, driving the boat's nose straight for the nearest island, shipped the sculls with a jerk, stumbled forward and caught at an alder stump. She flung the chain round it and made fast. The boat's stern swung round—it was thrust in under the bank and held there close; the chain clicked loudly as it stretched taut.
"Well!" said Betty. The island was between her and the riverside path. No one would be able to see her. She must listen and call out when she heard anyone pass. Then they would get another boat and come and fetch her away. She would not tempt fate again alone in that boat. She was not going to be drowned in any silly French river.
She landed, pushed through the saplings, found a mossy willow stump and sat down to get her breath.
It was very hot on the island. It smelt damply of wet lily leaves and iris roots and mud. Flies buzzed and worried. The time was very long. And no one came by.
"I may have to spend the day here," she told herself. "It's not so safe in the boat, but it's not so fly-y either."
And still no one passed.
Suddenly the soft whistling of a tune came through the hot air. A tune she had learned in Paris.
"C'etait deux amants."
"Hi!" cried Betty in a voice that was not at all like her voice. "Help!—Au secours!" she added on second thoughts.
"Where are you?" came a voice. How alike all Englishmen's voices seemed—in a foreign land!
"Here—on the island! Send someone out with a boat, will you? I can't work my boat a bit."
Through the twittering leaves she saw something white waving. Next moment a big splash. She could see, through a little gap, a white blazer thrown down on the bank—a pair of sprawling brown boots; in the water a sleek wet round head, an arm in a blue shirt sleeve swimming a strong side stroke. It was the lunatic; of course it was. And she had called to him, and he was coming. She pushed back to the boat, leaped in, and was fumbling with the chain when she heard the splash and the crack of broken twigs that marked the lunatic's landing.
She would rather chance the weir or the waterfall than be alone on that island with a maniac. But the chain was stretched straight and stiff as a lance,—she could not untwist it. She was still struggling, with pink fingers bruised and rust-stained, when something heavy crashed through the saplings and a voice cried close to her:
"Drop it! What are you doing?"—and a hand fell on the chain.
Betty, at bay, raised her head. Lunatics, she knew, could be quelled by the calm gaze of the sane human eye.
She gave one look, and held out both hands with a joyous cry.
"Oh,—it's you! I am so glad! Where did you come from? Oh, how wet you are!"
Then she sat down on the thwart and said no more, because of the choking feeling in her throat that told her very exactly just how frightened she had been.
"You!" Temple was saying very slowly. "How on earth? Where are you staying? Where's your party?"
He was squeezing the water out of sleeves and trouser legs.
"I haven't got a party. I'm staying alone at a hotel—just like a man. I know you're frightfully shocked. You always are."
"Where are you staying?" he asked, drawing the chain in hand over hand, till a loose loop of it dipped in the water.
"Hotel Chevillon. How dripping you are!"
"Hotel Chevillon," he repeated. "Never! Then it was you!"
"What was me?"
"That I was sheep-dog to last night in the forest."
"Then it was you? And I thought it was the lunatic! Oh, if I'd only known! But why did you come after me—if you didn't know it was me?"
Temple blushed through the runnels of water that trickled from his hair.
"I—well, Madame told me there was an English girl staying at the hotel—and I heard some one go out—and I looked out of the window and I thought it was the girl, and I just—well, if anything had gone wrong—a drunken man, or anything—it was just as well there should be someone there, don't you know."
"That's very, very nice of you," said Betty. "But oh!"—She told him about the lunatic.
"Oh, that's me!" said Temple. "I recognise the portrait, especially about the hat."
He had loosened the chain and was pulling with strong even strokes across the river towards the bank where his coat lay.
"We'll land here if you don't mind."
"Can't you pull up to the place where I stole the boat?"
"The man's not living who could pull against this stream when the mill's going and the lower sluice gates are open. How glad I am that I—And how plucky and splendid of you not to lose your head, but just to hang on. It takes a lot of courage to wait, doesn't it?"
Betty thought it did.
"Let me carry your coat," said Betty as they landed. "You'll make it so wet."
He stood still a moment and looked at her.
"Now we're on terra cotta," he said, "let me remind you that we've not shaken hands. Oh, but it's good to see you again!"
"Look well, my child," said Madame Chevillon, "and when you see approach the Meess, warn me, that I may make the little omelette at the instant."
"Oh, la, la, madame!" cried Marie five minutes later. "Here it is that she comes, and the mad with her. He talks with her, in laughing. She carries his coat, and neither the one nor the other has any hat."
"I will make a double omelette," said Madame. "Give me still more of the eggs. The English are all mad—the one like the other; but even mads must eat, my child. Is it not?"