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The little crowd increased—it is wonderful how many people there are with nothing to do—as it became evident that in her oblique course she must collide with one of the massive stone piers. Still the men worked frantically at the clanking windlass, and the mast now rose high above the bridge; but yet the barge drifted faster backward.
"She should go better t’wind’ard nor that,” muttered an old sailor among the spectators.
A quiet, grey-eyed man beside him, who had hitherto remained silent, gazing down on the vessel's deck, put in a remark here. “I don't think there's any one at the rudder,” he said; and immediately blushed to hear his own voice, and shrank away at the laugh which went up at such a suggestion.
“Mebbe yer'd like to sail her yerself,” said the sailor, with great scorn. “ Did y’ever hear of a barge as sailed w'out a hand at the tiller? That ain't no bookwork; mebbe it's a bit beyond yer.”
Another laugh went up at this delicate witticism, and the grey-eyed man looked profoundly uncomfortable. But attention was diverted from him by the more exciting event of the barge at length striking against the stone pier and swinging her bows into the archway till her mast came jammed flat against the parapet and held her. A pleased murmur of fulfilled expectation came from the idle crowd, and quite other sounds from the baffled crew.
At this precise moment the great brown mainsail, whose hanging folds had hitherto concealed all the after part of the deck from the spectators on the bridge, swinging with its heavy boom over to the other side, disclosed, to the astonishment of the crowd and the discomfiture of the sarcastic sailor, the remarkable fact that the tiller was swinging idly backward and forward at its own sweet will. There was no one on deck save the two inen at the windlass.
“Yer were right, master, it seems,” said one of the crowd to the grey-eyed man: "that naterally 'counts for her drifting like that. What be they thinking of? Pore thing can't sail without her helum !”
Several well-intentioned people here endeavoured to communicate the interesting fact to the crew of the barge, who were now cracking their muscles at the ends of long “quants” or poles, wherewith they were heroically trying to shove off from the stone pier. But as they all spoke at once, and each used some different expression, the aggregate effect that reached the bargemen was only set down by them as the natural excitement of the “landsmen." They set their teeth and shoved harder.
Meantime the timid grey-eyed man, who was now the object of respectful admiration for his proved discernment, was staring down contemplatively at the deck of the barge, murmuring to himself. All this interested him immensely; for he was a man of books and solitude, whose ideas of life were all second-hand and mostly wrong; and a bit of real life now and then took hold of his senses and filled him with delight. And as he looked down the idea suddenly struck him that it would be excessively interesting to investigate this barge, whose cross trees came so invitingly up in his face against the bridge parapet ; and being a person of strange whims and crazes, in half a minute he had stepped on to the masthead and let himself down, by a rope hanging therefrom, on to the deck.
“ Hullo!” cried the man who had last addressed him. “Why, he's fell over !”
“Who has ? what? where? Let's see,” instantiy clamoured the crowd ; and a rush was made for the spot favoured by so eligible an accident.
“ It's Mr. Kennan, and he ain't no more fell over nor you have,” said the sarcastic sailor, who was now quite converted to admiration by the spectacle of
that gentleman swarming down the rope like any of the profession ; "he's gone down the rope, and that's more nor most o' you could do, strike me dead! He knows wot he's up to, don't you fear.”
Mr. Kennan gone down on deck--by a rope, too! This amazing fact the crowd instantly fell on as on a bone, and worried it to their hearts' content; those who knew something of him explaining his usual strange modes of life—which in a philosopher are always very strange indeed to the world in general--while those who knew nothing of him supplemented these with additional information; all of which was eagerly taken up as twenty-four carat fact and henceforth inseparably associated with the name of Kennan. Of which process the finished result is called Biography.
Meanwhile the object of their remarks had reached the deck, and was beginning to look about him with great interest. It occurred to him that a little practical experience of this kind might stand him in good stead for description in the next contribution he sent to the Fleet Street Monthly, in the pages of which his elegant style and decided turn for epigram had begun to attract considerable attention. “A literary man should see life in the rough,” he said to himself, and forthwith began to pick his way carefully along the planks, among the tarred ropes and other miscellanea incidental to an up-river barge. The men in the bows did not notice him; one of them was just putting off in a boat to carry a line to a big red buoy near the shore, by which they proposed to warp the barge off from the bridge. Mr. Kennan paused in his investigations at the hatchway, and looked curiously down it.
As if to answer his mental question, some one appeared at the bottom of the ladder as he stood looking down it from the top. It was a young girl, wearing a light print dress, with a great red kerchief over her head and shoulders ; from under which, as in a frame, a handsome dark face looked inquiringly up at the unexpected visitor. The look of inquiry gave way to one of surprise and unmistakable recognition, as she sprang up the ladder to his side.
He drew back politely from her outstretched hand and her “Why, Mr. Kennan!” in some astonishment. He hesitated a brief second as to what expression he should use to disclaim the acquaintance ; for it seemed inconsistent with that familiar footing which he wished to establish with this sort of life, to say, “Excuse me,I fear I have not the honour. ..." On the whole, he thought the correct expression to use under the circumstances was, “I think you've made a mistake, my dear!” accompanied by a patronising, and not too strictly paternal, smile.
The girl's face assumed an appearance of blank astonishment, and, dropping her hand at her side, she stood gazing at him as though not at all knowing what to make of this. "I can't have done it quite rightly,” thought Mr. Kennan.
““Perhaps my manner was more formal than she is accustomed to see.” Accordingly he imparted a kind of convolution, or squirm, to his person, intended to convey the idea of dashing jauntiness, and proceeded to address her again with “My dear
A look of sudden perception came into the girl's brown eyes, and her face lit up with intense amusement. He saw that she was on the point of buisting out laughing “My dear,” said he, surely you don't know me? And what makes
But she was quite solemn again instantly, and, folding her arms upon the roof of the raised hatchway, looked gravely at him. “ I don't know what made me laugh so,” she said demurely ; "perhaps it was your coming down so sudden. But of course I know you—every one in Carchester knows you by sight.”
“Dear me !” observed Mr. Kennan, with elaborate carelessness, trying hard to conceal the gratification he felt. “ I am surprised at that. Do they-ah-talk about me ever-my dear?” He threw in the last two words as an almost forgotten, but highly important, formula of address.
“Oh yes--sir," said she, “I often hear them speak of you. Look! we're moving away !"
The rope had by this time been fastened, and the two men were again straining their arms at the windlass. The windlass clanked round, and the big red buoy bowed politely toward the barge as the rope strained taut; and the vessel's bows were slowly drawn out away from the bridge. Up above, the line of heads and legs was undiminished; for a sight is a sight, as long as there is anything at all to see. The wind blew stronger and colder, and the sun was beginning to set.
They both looked away for a minute, and then their eyes met again. In the girl's face there seemed to be the faintest remnant of a twinkle, but it died out immediately.
“ I'm afraid you won't be able to get off again,” said she.
“But I want to stay here a little while,” protested Mr. Kennan. “I want to stop and talk to you, my dear." He marvelled much at his own boldness directly he had said it. The girl smiled sweetly on him. “Do you really, sir?” she said.
“ But if you stay at all you'll have to stay till we get to Wooldham; and that won't be till midnight, unless the wind changes."
Mr. Kennan looked a little blank, and cast his regard at the bridge, then at the shore, and lastly at the broad stream flowing between its mudbanks, over which the setting sun was spreading lovely, but chilly-looking evening tints. His sudden wbim to investigate "lise” on the deck of a barge had subsided, as most of his ideas did after a due interval ; and just now the pursuit of practical experience appeared less attractive, if more worthy, than the comfort of his own fireside. The wind was very sharp, and he shivered.
“I think,” said he hesitatingly—“I think—that I had better go home.” the words came out he had an unpleasant consciousness of feeling like a small girl tired out at a party, and an uneasy idea that she thought he looked it.
"You didn't call me 'my dear’ that time,” said she, with a mischievous, dancing light in her eyes.
“She really is a very charming young person,” thought Mr. Kennan. are, you know," he assured her. You haven't had much time to make up your mind yet, have you ? ” was her
“ But what did you come down here for ? To see "Now I am seeing life,” thought Mr. Kennan. “I came down, my dear," he said, “to see what a barge was like.” " And now you must stay to see what it is like, sir. You wouldn't
home again directly because of the cold, surely ?"
A great and unaccountable fear of losing estimation in this girl's eyes seized this philosopher of so little experience in womankind. “ Ah-no, of course not,” said he; “I shouldn't think of it."
The girl laughed in his face.
neasily. “Do you know what they call you?" she asked him, at the end of a laugh.
What?” “The Undecided Man !'" was the answer, as the answerer disappeared down the companion-ladder into the interior of the barge.
Our grey eyed philosopher and investigator of life was left in some confusion,
66 But you
looking over the barge's side. He had flattered himself that he had made a considerable impression, and displayed a fitting and elegant condescension to one of the “lower classes,” and this was a shock to all his feelings. The consciousness of looking foolish is one of the most uncomfortable things in creation. Moreover, he could not help starting at the phrase the girl used : “ The Undecided Man !” That was exactly what Freda Sands called him-Freda, his closest friend in Carchester,