Images de page
PDF
ePub

who alone valued and understood him, who nevertheless was always scolding him and stirring him up for his lamentable lack of decision. “ The Undecided Man!” It certainly hit him off exactly. She had fixed the phrase on him when -- Ah, well, thereby hangs a tale. But that the very words should turn up again, in this girl's mouth! It was not a very original expression, certainly: any one who knew anything about him might have hit on it; and then, he had just shown a miserable indecision of purpose in the matter of going on shore. But there was something in the readiness of bringing it out, and the look and laugh which accompanied it, that set an uneasy feeling of mystery shaking itself vaguely somewhere in his consciousness.

“Strange !” thought he, after turning all this over twice : "very strange !”

“ Hullo, master !” cried a large, cheerful voice at his ear. “What spree brings you here?”

“Ah!” thought Mr. Kennan, “now I shall study the genuine article. I wonder how I'd better address him. It might be a good thing to swear a bit here.” Accordingly, turning to the red-faced, black-jerseyed, blue-trousered individual, who had laid a ponderous paw on his shoulder, he addressed him with, “Why, mate, d-d if I ever saw you coming!”

Now, Mr. Kennan's laudable desire to accommodate himself to the manners of all sorts of men, conflicting with his natural disposition of behaviour, not infrequently led him into most curious results. The exaggerated heartiness with which he delivered this rollicking remark, combined with the ridiculous meekness of his whole appearance, caused the bargeman to stare at him in the blankest astonishment. Mr. Kennan felt the glow of his enthusiasm chilled.

“1-1 came down off the bridge by a rope,” he explained, “when the barge was stuck there. I wanted to see what a barge was like, you know.”

“Did yer now ?” returned he of the jersey, with a broad grin. “Yer don't look as if yer knowed much about 'em, sartinly. Ye're welcome, mate, to see as much as yer like; but it ain't very extra comfurable, I s'pose. We had a toughish job a-getting off that blessed old bridge, I can tell yer ; but she's making way now.”

Mr. Kennan looked up and beheld the great brown sails bulging out in the wind, and again looked astern, and saw that they were tacking across the stream and leaving the red buoy quickly behind. He had been so occupied with the mystery of the girl's last words to him that he had not noticed the manoeuvres that had brought about this result.

“ Can you put me off soon, in the boat?” he said.
The bargeman shook his head. “Can't stop fur that now,” said he;

“ she's well off, and I must get on t’oords Wooldham. But if so be as yer care to stay along of us till then—which might be midnight or so—why, we'll make yer as comfurable as may be, and put yer off there.”

Till midnight! This was not a very cheerful prospect. Mr. Kennan looked longingly at the bridge, and the old castle, and the wide, wind-stirred river. The sails were drawing full, and the rigging creaked and groaned. The barge slipped quickly through the water, and they were now nearing the mudbanks of the opposite side, and ready to "go about."

“Now I am seeing the real thing,” said Mr. Kennan to himself; and the thought cheered him a little. He looked at the adventure as a sacrifice in the cause of literature ; and viewed in that light it acquired a certain heroic dignity which somewhat reconciled him to his discomforts. “A literary man should see life in the rough,” said he to himself again. But at the same moment an extra gust of wind smote him in the back, and caused him to shiver violently.

“Wind's coldish, master,” observed the bargeman, emerging from the hatchway,

whither he had just dived. “ Best take this old coat of mine. There's a bit o' fire in the stove below, and a drop o' tea too; and Miss Nora there'll be glad to see yer, I don't doubt.”

“Miss Nora ?” asked Mr. Kennan. “Why do you call her Miss Nora ?”

“00-ay-well, so we do," answered the bargeman, showing strange signs of confusion. “I oughter a' called her-well, that's just a name she 'as with us, yer see!” With which insufficient explanation he tramped off forward to set the jib for going about.

“I see there are courtesies even in this class of life," reflected Mr. Kennan; I must make a note of that.” And, putting the coat over his arm, he made his way along the deck to the hatchway-narrowly escaping the abstraction of his hat by the huge mainsail as it swung over-and cautiously lowered himself into the cabin.

After hitting his head sharply against the beam that spanned the doorway he found himself in a long, low, half-lighted place, pleasantly warm after the inclement wind on deck. In the farther corner stood the stove, glowing through its white, transparent sides as though it were the very heart of the barge and felt itself kindled to extra heat at the approach of a guest; while on its open top a kettle seemed to be expressing the stove's hospitable intentions with a pleasant singing noise and a gentle lifting up of its lid, as much as to say, “How comfortable this is ! and I'm quite ready for you!” Down the middle of the cabin ran a plain deal table, on one end of which was spread a cloth, with tea; on each side of the table ran a strip of dark red carpet, and beyond the strips of carpet cupboards of various shapes, and big wooden boxes, stood against the wall. Above the boxes hung, on one side, four highly coloured works of art, representing Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, with appropriate verses attached to each ; and on the other a bookcase, absurdly long in proportion to the quantity of books it contained, the library of the barge amounting only to one or two ancient and discoloured yellow-backed novels (or, more strictly speaking, novels that had once been yellow-backed--for now they possessed no backs at all), and a few copies of local papers and penny magazines. Coats of various sorts and complexions hung on pegs here and there ; and from the great centre beam of the ceiling hung a swinging lamp, between the strings of dried onions festooned across from side to side like a practical and utilitarian form of Christmas decoration. But the full description of the interior of the barge may be found—or will some day be found--in Mr. Kennan's published works, a standing testimony to the wicked falsity of those who have said that that gentleman knows no more of the universe he writes about than is presented to him between the four walls of bis study. At present we are more immediately concerned with the philosopher himself.

The girl, who was the sole occupant of the cabin, was sitting in a wickerwork chair in front of the stove, apparently doing nothing. She turned towards Mr. Kennan as he came in, but did not move or speak. He drew up another chair-it was a wooden one, and had no back, like the books—and took up his position beside her in silence.

" It is comfortable in here," observed he after an interval, by way of starting the conversation. “I had no idea barges were so pleasant to live in.”

“Have you seen many of them ?" she inquired.

“N-no," Mr. Kennan was obliged to confess; "this is really the first of which I have had any experience.”

“I thought so," said the girl calmly, and got up from her chair.

“Ah-is it necessary to have the lamp lit?" stammered Mr. Kennan, seeing her with a box of matches in her hand. “It's so much pleasanter like this.” For

[graphic][subsumed]

The girl, who was the sole occupant of the cabin, was sitting in a wicker chair."

he had just reflected that the warm glow of the stove threw an altogether delicious light on her face and her dark hair, and made a very fascinating picture for him to look at.

“Oh, very well,” said she, sitting down again, "we can talk just as well by the stove-light. I don't want to read any more now.”

“ What were you reading ?” asked Mr. Kennan. Here was something on which he could show his superiority, he thought; if this girl had the advantage over him in river matters, she could not at any rate know anything about books. “May I see?” said he, feeling a comfortable sense of elevation already as he picked up the book lying on the floor. “Oh-ah--- really, I didn't expect -I mean, I'm glad to see-do you like this?” The book was Landor's “Imaginary Conversations.”

She watched his confused astonishment with amusement, and said nothing while he turned over the pages, reading a familiar passage here and there, till he looked up again and closed the book. "And do you really like Landor ? ” said he.

* Thanks to him for bathing my spirit in deep thoughts, in refreshing calm, in sacred stillness,'” she answered him gravely.

“Good heavens !” thought he, dropping “Imaginary Conversations” on to the floor. “There's not a woman in Carchester could have made that quotation but Freda Sands !” He believed she had made it, not so very long ago. He had often talked to her of Landor, and his magnificent prose; she used to say to him, “Study Landor, my friend, to your heart's content: there is a fine decision about him that will do you a world of good.”

" But Landor is not an author usually patronised by the lower classes," said Mr. Kennan to himself. “ This is really interesting; I must make a note of it.” Which he did, to the effect that “we are often mistaken when we suppose that the literature we enjoy is beyond the conceptions of the lower classes. They show a surprising intelligence in studying masterpieces which we ignorantly imagine are addressed only to the world of culture."

“Are you putting that down ? ” said the girl, who had been watching him with mischievous eyes," or are you making a note on me? If you're going to put me into a book, you know, wouldn't you like to know my name first ? "

“Yes. You know mine already."

They call me Nora. My real name is Mavis-- Mavis Nora. Pretty nanie, isn't it?" she added meditatively.

“Mavis," repeated Mr. Kennan: "I like that better than Nora. May I call you Mavis ? ”

He instinctively dropped the “my dear” now: there was an air, vague and indescribable, about this girl that seemed to forbid any address like that.

“ What's in-” she began ; but he stopped her.
“Pray-let me implore you not to finish that quotation,” said he.

“ It is so pitifully overworked; it is like cold mutton in the mental mouth. Besides, do you think Shakespeare-or I should say, the author of the plays-was right in that ?”

“No, not altogether," answered the girl. “ At least, I think the rose doesn't always smell as sweet by another name. Have you got any particular rose ?"

Mr. Kennan blinked at her, not quite understanding. “A lady, you know,” she explained, “who is a-special friend, we might call it.”

"Ah! I see," said he, understanding. “And you mean, if I met her -- supposing that there was one, of course—if I were to meet her under another name

“ She would not smell as sweet.'

Mr. Kennan tilted back his chair with that judicious literary air he liked to affect, and gave it as his opinion that probably “she would not."

“ That is the difference between men and women,” she said, half aloud : "the man forgets when the circumstances are changed; the woman does not care for circumstances, but knows the man she has given herself to, in whatever form he comes to her."

He looked up from his contemplation of the third bar of the stove to her face, and wondered to himself that he had not seen before how beautiful she was. The ruddy light, showing up her head brightly against deep shade behind, seemed to bring out all the charm of her eyes and hair and mouth, and invest them with a new softness and glamour, as if the genial spirit of the flames had a power to call forth the yet unstolen beauty in her soul and draw it into her face now, in this quiet dim time, as it never was in the open day. She sat so still, bending forward, resting her head upon her arms, that Mr. Kennan could see the tiny reflection of the glowing coals flickering in her dark eyes, under the roof of the long lashes above. This was certainly a treasure-trove, in the literary sense, he thought-a sweet incongruity, a charming mistake, a rose in a garden of nettles. The question, “how she came to be there, being what she was,” did not trouble him ; but he instinctively knew that all barge girls were not like this.

“She is fascinating,” he said to himself. “And it is curious, but her face—just now—suggests some one I have seen before somewhere. ...'

By the time the barge, slowly tacking up the narrowing stream in the moonlight, had reached the desired haven of Wooldham, Mr. Kennan had become deeply conscious of the charms of this maiden of the river. It is true that circumstances conspired together against his susceptible heart: the still, clear night; the moon on the river, and the gleaming water sleeping after the agitation it had endured all day in the now subsiding wind; the motion of the barge, slipping quietly along under her great sails, that looked like huge wings overhead in the white, uncertain light ;perhaps all these, as well as the girl's beauty, had their influence on the philosopher's æsthetic senses, and, rousing them to an intense pitch, caused him to mistake them for the dawning of love. This sense of the beautiful, by some called sentiment, being itself one of the avenues of the deeper feeling, is yet sometimes its most successful counterfeit.

There was scarcely enough of the dying breeze to carry the heavy vessel slowly up to the black, shining wharf, where she was made fast, bow and stern, between two others that had come up during the day. Mr. Kennan, who had been on deck watching the operations of lowering sail and making snug for the night, went down again into the cabin to fetch a pair of gloves he had left there. The cabin looked so comfortable that he felt half sorry he could not spend the night on board instead of returning to prosaic life at the inn. There was a little spice of romance about his adventure and all its features that appealed to his unromantically nurtured mind. And now he also felt a sudden idea, whose presence he could not at all account for, that he was leaving this girl alone on the barge when he ought to be taking care of her—a sense of deserting his own property, which caused him to examine himself briefly as he stood on the companion-ladder. !

“What has she got to do with me?” he asked himself; “and why should this peculiar idea come into my head ?

“Is it possible that I have allowed myself to come under the fascination of this young person? It might have been the case had she been one of my own classbut a girl of this position ..

“And yet she is somehow above her position, too.

“And I wonder what relation she is to the two men, or whether she is any relation to either of them ? I suppose this class do not have the same feelings about propriety as we have.

“But she is very charming."

This final reflection, which was of that order of reflections which have a curious power of overriding all others, impelled him up the remaining steps of the companion-ladder and to the stern of the barge, where the girl was sitting on the tiller waiting for him to take his departure.

“What a beautiful figure she has !” thought Mr. Kennan as he approached.

“I hope you've got some useful information about Medway barges," said she, in a tone which seemed to have a note of mockery in it. “Have you made some notes about me?

“ "Ere the parting hours go by,

Quick, thy tablets, Memory!""

At this second quotation Mr. Kennan experienced another shock; but it was accompanied this time by a vague thrill of delight. He forgot the incongruity that had forced itself on him before, and took her up softly, without reflection,

[blocks in formation]
« PrécédentContinuer »