The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 8
UP THE STREAM
Next day, just as the fresh June morning was getting hot, John was striding fishing rod in hand and basket on shoulder, down the road past the church which ran between the Battle Meads (as they were called, in memory of the old fight). Till he had got past the church, he felt as if somebody would call him back at the last moment, and he had walked so fast that he was flushed hot enough now. He slacked his pace presently, and wiped his streaming face, laughing the while as the thought aforesaid came to him.
No shadow of last night's fears and doubts was on his face now, and he looked, and was, as happy a fellow as might be found within the narrow seas. Both the lads, and he especially, would have been called very childish, at most times, by superficial observers, from the agonies with which they caught at little pleasures, their shyness, and (when they were talking to strangers) this clumsiness of expression, and the care with which they avoided any words or talk that expressed strong feeling of any kind. And certainly John was more excited with his day's fishing than one would have expected a big fellow of seventeen to be.
He soon gained the top of the first slope, and from the brow of it he could see the line of alders that indicated the windings of the stream, through a narrow valley, soon bounded again by another cultivated slope. He stopped presently at an old stone bridge, and began fitting his rod together there, and disposing of his tackle on the parapet. By the side of the bridge was a stile that led down to the footpath, which followed the river for some way through the fat green meadows.
The stream itself was a sluggish one, with steepish clay banks, and much overhung with alders and maple; not very inviting, certainly, but it had the attraction for our brothers that running water always has for boys, and John stayed looking with real affection over the moss-grown parapet. Presently, as he stood thus, there came a sound of wheels, and turning round he saw Dr Stoneman's gig and old white mare come pounding along. The doctor pulled up suddenly when he saw him, and said:
‘Well, how’s the sick one this morning?’
'Getting on all right,' said John. 'He woke at seven morning, and said he had slept all night. He said he wants to get up to-morrow.'
He was just shaking the reins, when John said:
'Stop a bit, doctor. When do you think Arthur will be about again, so as to be able to walk, I mean?'
'Oh, about ten days,' said Dr Stoneman. 'Lord, John, how bright and pleased you look to-day! Has anything happened?'
'Why, Dr Stoneman, you don't suppose either Arthur or I want to be dangling about waiting for Father's shoes. Besides, we've both of us made up our minds we won't be parsons. I'm going with a Russian merchant's, Dr Stoneman,' said John, rather proudly, for in fact it hadn't taken him long to make up his mind.
'There'' said the little doctor. 'I'm a prophet, John! I was telling your father yesterday you would make your fortune in no time! Well, goodbye again—I wish I were going with you. I say: does Miss Clara treat you still as little boys and kiss you, eh?’
The wheels drowned his cackling laughter as he spoke, so John had his scarlet blush all to himself. To say the truth, he would have blushed nearly as much if the doctor had only mentioned Clara’s name; nay, he would have blushed at the mention of almost any lady between the ages of twelve and sixty, is she were anything short of being his aunt, for he was of that age. However, he was not so ill pleased by the doctor’s joke as he went down the footpath, and throwing his line into the water, he began to fish assiduously enough; and, as luck would have it, he falsified both the doctor’s and the cow-boy’s prophecy by taking a fair number of fish.
So the day wore on, and, cloudless still, began to gather that purple haze about the horizon which makes the summer noon so threatening. John seemed to get more restless, and passed quickly now from pool to pool; and at last, when it was nearly half-past twelve, deliberately put up his rod, and walked down the river bank for some furlongs or so till he met the meadow-path again.
Just here the whole landscape got freer and more cheerful; the southern slope was a good deal drawn back from the stream now, and left wide flat meads on that side, with a fringe of hedgerow along the hills’ foot. The stream itself grew shallow, and ran over gravel, or pushed its way through beds of blue-flowered mouse-ear and horsemint, and was bordered by willows instead of the harsh dark alders that hung over its black pools higher up. The meadows were full of great sleek-skinned cows who grazed quietly, or sat under the big trees scattered here and there about them. John went along rather fast, as though he had to get to some place by a known time, but singing and happy.
He met a little brown-faced girl with a basket and a solemn, stump-tailed mongrel of a dog. The girl bobbed to the parson’s son, and the indiscriminating dog growled at him. Then, as he passed a muddy shallow of the stream in which the heifers were standing and swinging their tails in a sort of cadence, he met a white-haired lad who pulled his forelock to him. He stopped when the lad had passed, with that puzzled sense of 'it's all happened before', till with a great sigh of enjoyment he seemed to gather the bliss of memory of many and many a summer afternoon into this one; and wondering deliciously why he was so happy, he walked on again as swiftly as before.
Presently he came to a treeless and shallow bight of the stream, that ran on now straight towards a grey old bridge some fifty yards ahead, and the wide expanse of the beautiful meadow was broken by a line of thick quick-set hedge that guarded a road a little raised above the fields, in a way that told of winter floods; but now, without looking, as if by instinct, his feet turned from the river onto a footpath that cut off the corner, to a big homestead lying at the foot of the slopes, which, grass-clad and rich with elm trees, again drew nearer to the river. The grey roofs showed among plenteous lime trees populous with rooks, and a row of huge walnut trees walked, as it were, up the hill from beside the farm-yard gate. The honeyed scent of the limes floated across the mead to him as he walked on eagerly through the blazing sun, and the pleasant sounds of the farm came with it, and brought him a feeling of rest and coolness to come.
The farm men were just slowly going off to their work again as he came up to the gate. He stopped amongst them, and spoke a few words to a tall young fellow there, a fishing and shooting companion of a good many years, and then watched them walking slowly off between the walnut trees to the upland fields, lingering again over his happiness before he went into the yard.
Indeed, it was a place, on that bright day, to exhilarate an older and more worn heart than his—or the heart of a stranger, either. For though there was nothing marked, or impressive, about the landscape, any more than at Ormslade, yet just as an atmosphere of dullness and hopelessness hung about that village, so about this was one of quietness and rest—the rest not of death, but of happy life.
Almost all the farm buildings were old, but quite trim, and in good order; the one or two where the stone was whiter were built much like the others. A paved footway led up to the house, and gave one the idea of the farmer and his family, come home from church to the Sunday dinner. The house itself was old—not later than Charles I's time, in fact, for there was 1639, carved with the initials, L.S., above the lintel of the doorway; and in appearance it was older still, with its three little gabled roofs running into the larger main roof, the gables themselves being finished with a stone ball, threaded on an iron spike. The gable-end of the said main roof was windowless, and covered all over with a great pear tree; and at the corner of the wall furthest from where John stood was an old yew tree, nearly blocking up the narrow space between the house and the farmyard wall.
As John was just pushing the gate, a peacock suddenly swept up from inside the yew tree, and perching on the coping sent forth his harsh cry, that rang with no unpleasant sound, somehow, from out of that dark corner of the sunny place. John stopped a moment again to look at him, but presently he swept down into the field outside, and John heard light footsteps coming along the wall side. He swung the gate open quickly and passed in: coming down along the way that led to the front of the house was a tall girl clad in a light dress, bare-headed, and holding a letter in her hand.