The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 14
THE PLEASURE-PARTY: THE END
So they passed out of the house, and turning along the front of it, went by the housekeeper's invitation through the gardens toward the little inn, that, standing where the Ormslade River (as people called it, though old folks and the maps had the Blackwater) ran into the big, navigable, sea-going stream, combined in itself the character of the inn, lock-house, and ferry-house. The Ormslade River, crossing the road, became a sort of garden canal to Ruddywell Court, and turned what would have been very beautiful and quaint old gardens into a positive paradise, and the young folk grew nearly wearied by their pleasure amid the redundance of the old garden, through which they loitered, sitting down for long spells here and there.
At last they came to where they had to cross a bridge, built in naively pedantic imitation of the glories of Palladia; and taking leave of the complaisant housekeeper, passed out into the highway a few hundred yards from the ferry-house. A rod or two further on, the backstream from above the lock crossed the road and ran into the Ormslade River, and there the two together slipped into the broad stream, which there is all the less necessity for naming, as the people thereabout never called it anything else than the River; and indeed they might be excused if they forgot that there was any other river in the world, so beautiful this stream was, such a look of history and romance and promise of great things to come it bore upon its eddies, and already, high up in that remote countryside, had that look of nobility which never belongs, as I fancy, to any river that does not personally meet the sea.
There were no longer hedges on either side of the way now—nothing but wide, clear ditches full of yellow-flowered sedge and water-flowers, and the road was a little raised above the broad meadows that spread out a long distance on this left bank of the stream; rows of willows here and there marking the course of some brook or big ditch, countless kine and horses wandering about, and the lapwing wheeling about with his peevish cry. On the right bank, low hills rose up just a rod on the other side of the tow-path, though just opposite the ferry they fell off into wide slopes of grass meadows, through which the road wound, and afterwards, upstream, fell away from the river, while downstream they rose steeper and here and there showed broken escarpments of sandy bank, pitted with sand-martins' nests.
So they came down to where the inn—a little low slateroofed house with the sign of the Rose hanging from it—stood at the brink of the wide pool below the lock, on a sloppy, willowy piece of land, even in this June almost as much water as earth. A casting-net was hung spread out and dripping still onto the dry, dusty road by the door; there was a mangy old grey, with a very small brown child babbling about him, and hanging onto his tail; and inside, through the cool dusk of the house, one could dimly see shining pots hanging up—a very unlikely place it looked to get one's dinner at; it looked like the end of the world; for the road that ended in the shallow on this side, rose from the water on the other all grass-grown and little used, and was now, indeed, little more than a bridleway, and seemed to lead nowhere at all.
So here Mrs Mason made Arthur go into the house for a rest, while John went to get the boat ready, and see about the necessaries for the feast. Arthur looked over his shoulder to see if Clara were coming, but she said quietly:
'I must go and look at the lock. There'll be plenty of time,' and walked off briskly as she spoke.
Presently her feet were bruising scent from the great horse-mint as she picked her way between the willow stems. Then she scrambled up a little bank into the blazing sun, and so to the lock head, where she stood leaning on the sluice tops and watched the water gurgling under the shut sluices, and the shadowy faint green bleak flitting about at the top of the water. The look of the black depths made the day seem hotter and more luxurious, as the scent of the marshland hay and clover, and the hum of bees and tinkle of sheep-bells, was carried to her across the wide meadows. Then, as she looked up in a while, the sound of church bells fell sweet upon the light wind from a little steeple she could just see at the foot of the furthest spur of the higher ground, bringing that inevitable melancholy with it that deepened upon her till with a sigh she was just turning to go, when she felt a hand upon her shoulder and said:
'No, it's me,' quoth his brother. 'How grave you look, Clara! You look as if you could see through me.'
Her eyes changed kindly as he spoke, and she said:
'I think the bells made me melancholy. John, let us come to the boat.'
He turned slowly, saying:
'What were you thinking of, though?'
'Well', she said, 'people can't expect to be answered when they ask such questions as that, but for once I think I can tell you. I was thinking that it would be very dreadful to live here if one got to be unhappy.'
'How strange,' he said. 'I suppose the bells set me thinking too, for as I came along I was thinking and wondering what I should do to pass the days if I were living here an old man, with all one's friends dead—or at Leaser Farm,' he said, stammering and reddening. She didn't answer, and he was silent as they walked on. He took her firm, fine hand to help her down the bank, and his face grew graver and graver, till she said suddenly:
'You bring the book?'
'Yes,' he said.
'I'm so glad. I have been looking forward to hearing those stories, and it will be so delightful to remember them with the beautiful place, and this happy day.'
They got to the boat with this, where Mrs Mason and Arthur were already seated. Clara was rather eager to row, but John, rather grave still, and awkwardly enough edging in some compliment to her skill with the oar, objected on the score of haste in getting to the shade being advisable. So Clara sat down beside the two others in the stern, smiling, but a little vexed. At any rate this pleased one person—Arthur, to wit—who sat with the rudder strings in his hands and her cheek nearly touching his shoulder, supremely happy; and presently she laughed merrily and said:
'John, I was getting ill-tempered—but you must have been picking up grand manners somewhere, to beat about the bush like that, when you know I can t row a bit.’
'All right,' he said, laughing himself. 'You shall row going back—you and your mother together, if you like. We can start in good time.'
'Worse and worse!' said Mrs Mason, 'unless you really mean a compliment by thinking us such fine ladies that our arms would ache at the first stroke of the oar. If you saw Clara and I washing our own smart lace things, you would think better of us, Master John.'
The two lads blushed and felt happy and shamefaced at this but said nothing, John laying vigorously on the oars, and Arthur pumping himself in the pride of his rivercraft*, though the great big green-painted old tub was not particularly suitable for that display.
[* The MS has 'oarcraft', but Arthur is supposed to be steering the boat.]
Betwixt this small pleasantry and others, they got to the eyot, which was just a long bank high and dry above the weedy shallow, that John pushed through with some difficulty; but in the middle of the said bank, someone had planted a ring of willows, and at this dry time the turf under them was soft and pleasant enough, so there they spread their feast out, Arthur lying down, and John trying to help, and looking awkward because the two women would not let him, pretending to be afraid of his breaking things. So there was plenty of laughter over their dinner, Mrs Mason coddling Arthur hugely (which he was still weak enough from his illness to like rather), and Clara watching his somewhat startling appetite with amusement mingled with pleasure, too.
The business of eating over, they fell to the book, Arthur reading at first, to whom Clara drew near, and sat watching his eager face, with a little frown on it, with kind and serious eyes, but turned, in the pauses of the tale, to talk about it to John, who spoke well and without any shyness now. Then John took the book and read, not so well as Arthur because he couldn't help thinking of what was coming further on in the tale; and Clara, having arranged the cloths that Arthur lay on about a tree-trunk, sat by him, and still watched his face, and he sat conscious of it, and not liking to turn to her lest she should look away.
When the sun was fairly falling, and before it began to get colder, they got into the boat; the two women took the oars and they dropped slowly downstream amid a good deal of merriment from the lads. They stopped here and there to gather wild flowers on the bank, and wandered about from side to side of the stream, doing all those little untellable things that go to make a happy day with happy people; and they were all very happy together, till at last Mrs Mason cried out that it was over-late for Arthur to be out, and they must turn at once. So she, who was sitting aft, moved to give her place up to John, and he went forward and met Clara in the middle of the boat.
It was a little difficult for them to pass one another and as they stood thus, with her hand on his shoulder, she stopped and said:
'John, look at the sunset now. Mother, and Arthur—turn round and look.'
For a sudden change had gone over the sky by the drift of light clouds, and the whole was full of strange golden light and in the west the clear sky passed from orange to pale yellow and deep crimson, unmeasurable colours. They looked silently while the stream gurgled past them, and the water hen cried among the reeds, and the big-eyed heifers stared at them from the bank. But Arthur turned soon, to look at Clara. There she stood, with her hand still on John's shoulder, and he holding her other hand. She had half bared her arms, beautiful but slim, as a young girl's are; her head was bare, and little locks of hair were floating about her face in the light wind; her lips were a little parted amid pleasure and thought, and her eyes fixed full on the sky, as if she would never think of anything on earth again. But even as he gazed in ecstasy, with a strange pang at her exceeding beauty that seemed too great for her to notice him, a happy smile crossed her face, her kind eyes fell to his, and she stepped aft lightly and came and sat down by him, laying her hand on his in the fullness of her heart.
Then John sat down and threw the oars into the rowlocks. With a heavy splash the boat's head swung round, and presently the two were facing that western glory to which John's back was turned; as he pulled back sturdily toward the lock.
It had not wholly faded when they got into the carriage there, though the clouds were dusky purple now instead of crimson, and the stars were beginning to show, and the high moon to colour. So on they drove through the odorous June night, steeped too completely in happiness to remember that their pleasure-day was nearly at an end. Arthur was rather worn out amid his delight, and Mrs Mason had made him lie as much along as he could on the back seat of the carriage, after much opposition on his part. He had Clara's roses in his hand, for he had made them put them in water at the little inn, and they were quite fresh now. She sat opposite to him, quite hanging over him, not saying much, but listening to him when he spoke, almost (he thought) as if there were no-one else in the world. And indeed she thought how happy she was to have such dear friends and so fond of her as he—and his brother—were.
Yes, and as he talked to her now, telling her of how he had thought of her in his illness, and of his dreams she had come into, that fever had sometimes turned into horrors, the tears gathered in her eyes with pity and affection; and—though with a thrill of fear—she felt, despite herself, glad that he seemed fonder of her than John did.
But here was Leaser Farm at last, and the little green railing, and the lights flitting about the windows, for it was fully night now; and now Clara's lovely eyes were blinking at the candles in the oak parlour, hot and stuffy now, while the two lads drove on still through the cool night.