the drippings of the rain

‘Well,’ said Florence to Mab, ‘we two are left alone. We’re the young
ones, we have to keep out of the way. But I am sure the Swinfords would
rather have seen you and me than Emmy. We are the youngest and we are
the most amusing.’

‘Oh, please speak for yourself,’ said Mab, ‘I am not amusing at all.’

Florence looked at her with an air of consideration. ‘Well, perhaps that
is true,’ she said; ‘you have a turn-up nose, and you ought to be
lively, but appearances are very deceiving. I wonder what that army of
observation will do to-day? I call them our army of observation because
they have gone to spy out the land, and decide upon what are the proper
lines of strategy. It’s quite new to us in Watcham to have a squire’s
family: and then it is not even a common squire’s family. They are such
superior people, and their ways are so unlike ours. Shouldn’t you say it
would be a nice thing in Watcham to have people whose ways are not as
our ways?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Mab, with the indifference of extreme youth,
‘we are well enough as we are.’

‘It is easy for you to speak, with only Aunt Emily to think of, and your
own way–and seventeen,’ said Florry, with a sigh. ‘I would give
something to be seventeen again.’

‘Why?’ said Mab. ‘It is the most ridiculous age–too old to be a child,
too young to be anything else. One cares no more for dolls and that sort
of thing, and one doesn’t care either for what the old people talk
about. How they go on and on and talk! as if anybody minded.’

‘You shouldn’t listen,’ said Florry.

‘Sometimes one can’t help it. Sometimes there’s a bit of story in it,
and then it’s nice–only in that case they say, ‘You remember so-and-so:
what a tragedy that was!’ and then the other wags his or her head, and
they shut up, not reflecting that you’re dying to know.’

‘There’s something of that sort about Mrs. Swinford,’ said Florence;
‘there was quite a talk about calling before mamma made up her mind.
Mrs. FitzStephen came in about a week or two ago, and she said, “I have
come to know what you’re going to do?” And mamma said, without even
asking what she meant, “I am very much perplexed, and I don’t know in
the least.” And then papa, standing in front of the fire, with his
coat-tails on his arms, you know, grumbles out–“You had better let it
alone.” “Let what alone?” mamma called out quickly, and he just stared
and said nothing. At this mamma said, “They are sure to entertain a
great deal; they are people that can’t live without company.” And Mrs.
FitzStephen, she said, “Oh, I don’t care for such company.” And then
mamma replied, with her grand Roman matron air, “You have no young
people to think of, Mrs. FitzStephen.”’

Florence was a tolerable mimic, and she ‘did’ those characters, with
whom Mab was intimately acquainted, in an exceedingly broad style, and
with considerable effect.

‘Florry, you oughtn’t to take off your own father and mother.’

‘Who then?’ cried Florry. ‘I must take such as I have; I don’t know such
lots of people. Wait till the Swinfords come on the scene and I’ll do
them.’

‘Ah, he’s not so easy to do. The others you’ve known all your life, and
they are all the same kind of people: but you never saw any one
like–_that_ gentleman. The General would give you no clue to him, nor
anybody you know here. He is like nobody you ever saw; he is–I don’t
know what to say.’

‘You are always thinking of that fur coat of his and patent leather
shoes. I wonder if they will see him to-day? They had much better have
taken you and me, Mab. Emmy may be the eldest, but she will never make
any impression. A man like that will never look twice at her.’

‘Why should he?’ said Mab, raising her eyebrows, ‘or what does it matter
whether he does or not?’

‘Oh, Mab, you silly little thing,’ said Florence, ‘you must know,
however silly you may be, that it matters a great deal. Think only what
it would matter! To have a girl settled like that–rich, able to do what
she pleased, one’s sister; only think; or still more if it was one’s
self. We’ve got twenty pounds a year each for our clothes, fancy! And
Mrs. Swinford will have hundreds–she will have just as much as she
likes, and whatever she likes, and a grand house where she could ask
the Queen herself: and power–power to get Jim settled somehow, to make
him sure of his living: perhaps to get something better for papa, and
save mamma some of the anxiety she has. And if anything happened to
_them_, why, there would be a home for–for–the other one, don’t you
see? Oh!’ said Florence, with a deep-drawn breath that seemed to come
from the very depth of her being, ‘it would matter so much that it is
wicked, it is dreadful, to think that a man could make such a change in
another creature’s life only by looking at her and throwing his
handkerchief. It’s immoral to dangle a chance like that under a poor
girl’s very nose.’

Mab was not unimpressed with this terrible truth. She felt also that to
contemplate the differences that might ensue if one of the daughters of
the Rectory became Mrs. Swinford of the Hall was more than words could
say. The very possibility caught at her breath. She made a momentary
pause of awe, and then she said, ‘But he never will, he never will!’

‘Emmy, no,’ said Florence; ‘no–she’s too–she’s not enough–oh! she’s
impossible, and I can see that very well for myself. Emmy is–she’s
one’s sister, and she is as nice as ever was. You know she is a nice
girl! But she was never made for that; whereas if they had taken you and
me—-’

‘Don’t say me, please,’ said Mab, reddening all over that blunt-featured
and irregular little face, which was unfortunately so like the
Pakenhams. The flush was quite hot, and discomposed her. ‘I’m
impossible, too–much more impossible,’ she said.

‘Oh! you stand upon your family,’ said Florence, ‘and upon your mother’s
position, and all that; but you may take my word for it, that if you
were the Marquis’s own daughter instead of a disrep—- I mean instead
of his brother’s, you would have to do the very same thing. If it is
because you’re not pretty, that’s true enough; but there’s never any
telling what may take a man like that, and you’ve got plenty of “go” in
you, Mab, though I don’t want to flatter you: and even in looks a year
or two may make a great difference—-’

‘Will you stop! will you stop, please!’ said Mab; ‘Florry, stop! You
make me ashamed. You make me feel as if—-’

‘You were going in for it, too?’ said Florence calmly. ‘It makes me
crazy, too, sometimes to think that—- But so long as girls are poor,
and a man, just because they please him, can change everything for
them–how can we help it? Even if you were to work, as people say, what
difference would it make? I could perhaps make my living–and Emmy—-
But dear, dear, to think of the Hall beside any little breadwinning of
ours—-’

‘Don’t talk so, _please_,’ cried Mab, with a shiver. She was not a
visionary at all, nor had she any sentiment to speak of. But she was
very young, still something between a girl and a boy, and ashamed to
hear those revelations which she only half understood; or, rather, did
not understand at all.

‘Well, one needn’t talk,’ said Florry, with a slight emphasis on the
word. ‘But though you mayn’t talk of it, you can’t stop a thing from
being true.’

‘Let’s go out for a walk,’ said Mab, ‘a long walk, down by the Baron’s
Wood and up by Durham Hill; or let’s go out on the river for a pull. Let
us do something–one can’t stay quiet all this bright afternoon.’

‘I want so much to see them when they come back,’ said Florry. ‘I want
to know what they think of him–if they saw him: and whether Emmy made
any impression, and what happened.’

‘What could happen? Do you expect her to come home engaged to him?’ said
Mab. ‘However well things may go, they could not go so quickly as that.’

‘I am not a fool,’ said Florry, with indignation. She stood at the
little gate looking out wistfully along the road by which the ladies had
gone. The great trees hung over the wall which bounded there the nearest
corner of the demesne of the Swinfords; the lodge and gate were just
round the corner out of sight. It was too soon to expect them to come
back. ‘Unless Mrs. Swinford had been out,’ said Florry. ‘She might be
out, you know, and then they’d be back directly.’

‘She never goes out,’ said Mab; ‘it’s too cold for her here.’

‘Or she might not receive them very well, and then they would only stay
a few minutes. You are so indifferent, you don’t care a bit what has
happened: and I am on pins and needles till I know.’

‘Then I shall go for a walk by myself.’

‘Don’t do that,’ said Florry, putting out her hand to stay her cousin.
She stood thus for a moment with her head turned towards the Hall, but
her hand clutching Mab, gazing in one direction while her person
inclined towards the other. She drew a long breath, and turned at last
from her fixed gaze. ‘They must,’ she said, sighing again, ‘have stayed
to tea. Yes, I’ll go on the river if you like; but let us go round home
on the way and fetch Jim.’

‘Jim!’ said Mab. ‘He’ll want to scull, and I prefer to scull myself.’

‘Oh, he doesn’t mind. He is as lazy as—- He’ll steer and let us pull
as long as ever you please. I don’t know anybody so lazy as Jim.’

‘We should be better by ourselves,’ said Mab; ‘not that heavy weight in
the stern of the boat. When we go by ourselves it’s no weight at all.’

‘He’ll steer,’ said Florry; ‘it’s better to have some one to steer. And
don’t you see it will keep him out of mischief for one afternoon.’

‘You have always another reason behind,’ said Mab. ‘It never is just the
thing you think of, but something at the back of it.’

‘Well,’ said Florry soothingly, ‘it’s always so, don’t you know, where
there’s a family. You are so lonely, you have no brothers and sisters.
If you do well, then everything is all right. But our being right
depends upon so many things: First, if papa is in good humour, and if
Jim is going straight. Emmy and I have little questions between
ourselves, of course, but these are the chief ones. Now, you have only
Aunt Emily to think of, and she neither gets into rages nor goes wrong.’

‘I should hope not,’ said Mab, indignantly.

‘It is all very well for you to throw up your head like that; but we
cannot do it. We must manage the best we can. Mab, I do often wish there
could be a change.’

This was said when she had at last torn herself away from the road to
the Hall, and the two girls were walking towards the Rectory and the
river.

‘What sort of change?’

‘Oh! anything. That Jim should go away, or that he should do something
dreadful that couldn’t be forgiven–or that Emmy should marry. I would
even marry myself–any one! to make a change in the family and get
away.’

‘I should think, however bad things may be, that they would be worse if
you were all separated and not knowing what happened to each other. And
what is there so very bad? You are all happy enough for anything one can
see.’

‘That is the worst of it,’ said Florry, ‘we are all pretending about
everything. It’s just one big lie all round–and it isn’t right to tell
lies, or at least the Bible says so. There is papa breaks every one of
the commandments, you know.’

‘Florry, don’t tell stories of Uncle James; I am very fond of him, and I
won’t have it.’

‘It’s true all the same. I don’t say it’s his fault, it’s Jim’s fault.
Papa swears–he does, he can’t help it, at Jim, and then pretends it’s
something else–the gardener, or the overseer, or the poor people, or
even poor Dash–that makes him so angry. Isn’t that lying? Then mamma
pretends Jim has doubts and won’t go in for the Church because of them,
when she knows very well what it is really he has been sent down for.
And Jim pretends that he is going back to Cambridge next term, and that
he is quite friendly with all the dons, and came down to read–I’ve
heard him say that.’

‘It may not be true,’ said Mab, doubtfully, ‘but I shouldn’t call that
lying–why should we all go and tell that poor Jim has not been good?
What have the other people to do with it? Mother says we’re not called
upon to give them any information–and she just says the same as you do:
but that is not to lie.’

‘We are all pretending, every one,’ said Florry. ‘Emmy and I are by way
of knowing nothing at all. I believe Jim thinks we don’t know anything.
So we have to pretend not only to other people, but to him in our very
own house, and papa too. I have heard papa say, “Thank Heaven, the girls
at least know nothing,” and mamma, the dreadful, dreadful liar that she
is, thanks Heaven too, though she knows very well that we knew as soon
as she did, and that she couldn’t keep anything from us two. If you
think of that, Mab, and just imagine how we go on pretending to each
other, and to everybody.

‘Now, if Jim were to go off to a ranche, as people advise, we should all
be very wretched, and probably it would be his ruin, but it would be a
little relief all the same. Or if Emmy were to get hold of this man–oh,
it may be odious, and you may cry out, but it would be a great relief.
There would be her wedding to think about, and her things, and
altogether it would be a change for everybody; and then she could do
something for Jim.’

‘Her husband could, you mean?’

‘It is the same thing: he would, for his own sake, not to have an idle
brother always about. It is killing all of us. One could bear it,
perhaps; but four all bearing it–all pretending something different, as
I tell you; Emmy and I not to know; mamma and papa that it’s another
thing altogether that vexes them. Oh! we get exasperated sometimes to
that degree, we could tear each other to pieces just to make a change.’

‘You are so exaggerated, Florry; mother always says so. You make a
mountain out of a molehill.’

‘I just wish Aunt Emily had our molehill for a little while–just for a
little while–to see how she liked it. What a lucky woman she is to have
only a girl! Nothing very bad can ever happen to you, Mab, or come to
her through you. You may be dull, perhaps, just two women, one opposite
to the other—-’

‘Dull! mother and I? Never. We don’t know what it is to be dull!’

‘Ah, that’s very well just now,’ said Florence, ‘you’re only seventeen;
but wait a bit till you are older, especially if you don’t marry, and
year goes on after year, and nothing ever happens. See whether you are
not dull then. I don’t know which is worst,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘to
have men in the family that make you miserable, or to have no men at all
about to make any variety, but just women together, who never do any
harm, but kill you with dulness. I really don’t know which is the
worst.’

Mab was a little overwhelmed by this point of view. She was at the same
time still indignant and resentful of the unexpected accusation. ‘When
we begin to be dull,’ she said, ‘I’ll let you know–but I don’t see any
reason for being so miserable. Poor Jim has never done anything so very
bad. Sometimes he is silly—-’

‘There you are quite wrong,’ said Florence, with great decision–‘he is
not silly: I wish he were, then one might think he didn’t know any
better; but even papa allows he is very clever. It is not from want of
brains or sense either, if he would only be as good as he knows how—-

‘Oh, if that is your opinion! Mother thinks he is only weak, and does
what people ask him.’

‘Aunt Emily is just as far out of it as you are. Does he ever do
anything that _we_ ask him? There is papa at him for ever–is he any the
better for it? Weak! that is what people say, thinking it’s a kind of an
excuse. I call it strong–to resist everything you ought to attend to,
and take up everything you ought not. How can that be weak?’

‘I am sure I don’t know,’ said Mab; ‘I don’t understand about boys. Jim
is the only one I ever knew intimately. But mother thinks if some one
were to get hold of him in the right sort of way—-’

‘What is the right sort of way? I suppose Aunt Emily thinks papa doesn’t
know–nor any of us who have it to do; that is just the way with people.
You are always thinking of a thing, thinking, and puzzling, and
troubling: and then somebody comes in who has never spent ten minutes on
it altogether, and says you are not taking the right way! Perhaps we
are not; but who are they to pretend to know better? and since they are
so wise, why don’t they tell us which is the right way?’

‘I am sure,’ cried Mab, ‘I never meant to make you angry, and mother is
not one to interfere. She only said it to me. But since you’re so full
of this, Florry, I think I had better go, and not trouble you any more,
for I only wanted some fun, and you are thinking of nothing but trouble.
I’ll run down to the water, and jump into a boat and have a little spin
by myself.’

‘Oh, Mab, don’t,’ cried Florence, clutching her once more. ‘Here we are
at our gate, just come in and ask him. He will come far more readily for
you than for me.’

But it was with an ill grace that Mab followed her cousin through the
Rectory kitchen garden, between the borders which veiled the lines of
potatoes and cabbages. It might be flattering to suppose her capable of
it, but she had not any desire to fill the place of missionary and
guiding influence to her cousin Jim.

The Rectory was a red house standing in a garden, which its inhabitants,
one and all, energetically declared not to be damp; from which the
stranger might gather that they were not so certain on the subject as it
would be well to be. Its doors were quite level with the ground, so that
you walked in, without the interval even of a step to raise you above
the drippings of the rain: and as the drawing-room windows also opened
down to the ground, it was rather a trying business in wet weather, and
kept both the housemaid and the family much on the alert. The two girls
went in through the open window, for the afternoon was quite bright and
fair, and no fear of rain: but they found nobody in the drawing-room,
which was low and rather dark, notwithstanding those two good-sized
French windows, which somehow seemed to keep the light within
themselves, and did not distribute it to the further side of the
drab-coloured wall; this, unornamented with pictures or any variety,
afforded a dingy background for the somewhat dingy couches and
easy-chairs, which were covered with brownish chintz, intended to keep
clean, or in franker language, ‘not to show the dirt’ for as long a
period as possible. Chintzes and wall papers, and even dresses, which
were calculated not to show the dirt, were very popular at the time Mrs.
Plowden married, as means of economy, and her daughters had been brought
up in that tenet of faith. Accordingly everything in the room was more
or less of this dingy drab complexion, which was not exhilarating to the
spirits. There were signs that the room had been recently occupied by
the untidiness of the loose cover of one of the sofas, which bore
evident signs that some one had been lying there, and had jumped up
hastily, and apparently fled, since the old novel he or she had been
reading lay open on its face on the floor, and the antimacassars with
which the sofa had been adorned were huddled up in limp bundles, and lay
here and there where restless shoulders or limbs had left them.
Florence gave her cousin a look as she picked up the book and spread out
the forlorn adornments on the arm and back of the sofa. ‘They were put
on quite fresh two days ago, and look at them!’ said poor Florry; they
were chiefly in crochet, and the work of her own hands.

‘He has been here,’ she said, ‘and papa has called him to see if he was
at work. Papa might just as well let it alone, for he is never at work;
but that is what they will not learn,’ said Florence, impatient of the
blindness of her parents. ‘We,’ she added, ‘have to put the room tidy
after him a dozen times a day; but I prefer him to be in the
drawing-room, for at least he can’t smoke here—-’

‘If he is out,’ said Mab, ‘let us go, Florry: we have lost half the
afternoon already.’

‘I don’t believe he is out–he is being “jawed,” as he calls it, in
papa’s study: don’t you hear them? Papa is at it hot! and what good will
it do? He will only say the same thing over and over–I could say it all
myself off by heart, everything papa says–and, of course, so could Jim,
and what good can that do? Come and stop it, Mab. Jim will be so
thankful to you: and poor papa won’t be sorry either,’ Florence said,
with a more sympathetic perception, ‘for he knows it’s useless; but when
he once begins he can’t stop himself.’

‘Oh,’ said Mab, ‘I can’t go and disturb Uncle James.’

‘When he’ll be so thankful to be disturbed!’ said Florry, ‘and you much
better than me, for you will have the air of not knowing what it all
means. No; don’t go to the study door. Go round by the garden, to the
window where he can see you coming. Walk slowly, and make a little noise
to attract their attention, so that you may not take them unawares. You
might ring, or whistle, or something–or call to Dash–and then papa
would see you, and have time to make up a face.’

These domestic diplomacies were unknown to Mab, but she took to them
with the natural instinct of femininity. There was a certain element of
fun, too, in stopping what she still called ‘a scolding,’ and in getting
the culprit off–even though the culprit did not commend himself very
warmly to her partiality. She carried out the programme accordingly,
while Florence waited just out of sight of the study window. It was not
a French window like those in the drawing-room, and it looked out upon
the dullest portion of the surroundings–a bit of grass where the water
lay treacherous during the long winter months in the slight concave of
the ground, with shrubs cruelly green and unchanging around it, and a
dead wall which they only partially veiled behind. Mab began to call
Dash loudly as she walked round the corner to this sanctuary, scattering
the gravel with her feet.

The scene that might have been seen inside the Rector’s window at that
moment was this: a tall youth seated on a chair presenting nothing more
responsive than the crown of his head, supported on his hands, to his
father’s remarks, and saying never a word; while the Rector, who had
risen from his own seat at his writing-table in his impatience, stood
pouring out the vials of his wrath. He was putting before Jim all the
enormities of which he had been guilty–his debts, the expense he had
been to his parents, the disappointment, the disgrace. When, however,
Mr. Plowden held up his hands to heaven and earth in grief and
disappointment that it should be ‘_my_ son’ who had been sent down by
his college, it is to be feared that Jim was making angry comments in
his mind to the effect that all his father cared for was that–‘not me,
or anything about me.’ He knew the circumstances very well–far better
than his father could tell him; and was it likely his conscience would
be more tender for being dragged over the same ground again and again?
When the Rector cried, ‘What is the use of talking to an impenitent cub
like you?’ his son felt deeply inclined to reply, ‘There is none.’ He
had, indeed, been wound up to the pitch of saying, ‘Why do you go on
like that when you’re so sure it will make no difference?’–a profoundly
sensible utterance, but one, perhaps, which it does still less good to
say.

When ‘Dash, Dash! come here, old fellow–get ready to come out for a
walk,’ sounded into the study, that home of anything but retired
leisure, the Rector came to a sudden stop. ‘There’s some confounded
visitor or other,’ he said in vexation, but not without relief.

‘It isn’t a visitor, it’s Mab.’

‘Don’t contradict me, sir! Who is she but a visitor, a silly girl
breaking in where your mother herself—- Don’t think I’ve done with you
because I’m interrupted. Don’t let me see you stir from your book till
dinner. Try whether you can’t do something like your simple duty, for
once in a way, just for the variety of the thing! Eh!–yes, my dear, you
can come in if you really want to, if you have anything to say to me,
but you know I’m always busy.’

‘Open the window, please, uncle,’ said Mab. ‘Is Jim there? We want him
to come out with us, out on the river. The weeds are coming up already
in the backwater, and we don’t want to risk going over the weir. It
would be a wetting, and it might be a drowning, don’t you know: and we
want Jim.’

The weeds and the weir were the invention of the moment, and Mab felt
rather proud of her skill; for of course the most obstinate of
backwaters is not choked with weeds in March, and the girls, who were
used to the river, were not so foolish at that season as to approach the
weir. The Rector looked out upon his niece, of whom he was proud, with a
look of helplessness; for even from his sister he had kept the secret
(knowing nothing of Florry’s indiscretions) of the sad state of affairs
with Jim.

‘My dear,’ he said, ‘it is quite true that Jim is here: but he’s busy,
almost as busy as I am, reading up, don’t you know, for his examination.
You really must not tempt him to-day. I am sure you know the river so
well, you will take care not to go near the weir.’

‘But, Uncle James, it is getting near four o’clock, we shan’t be more
than an hour. Don’t you think he will get on much better with his work
when he comes back?’

Jim had gradually expanded himself while this conversation was going on;
his father’s back being turned he actually, not metaphorically, kicked
up his heels a little in secret demonstration of his joy. Then he rose,
and appeared exceedingly composed and respectful behind his father, who
was leaning out of the open window. ‘Since it is a question of the
girls’ comfort, sir,’ said Jim, ‘an hour won’t make very much
difference. I can get up that Sophocles just as well after dinner as
now.’

‘I don’t put much faith in you after dinner,’ said the Rector, without
turning his head.

‘Oh, but why shouldn’t you, uncle?’ said Mab, ‘I’ll answer for him! Of
course he’ll work! Why there’s nothing to do after dinner. Uncle says
you may come, Jim.’

‘I don’t say anything of the kind,’ said Mr. Plowden. But his eyes went
from Mab outside to Jim within. They were both of them so young, and
surely if there could be anything innocent in this world it would be an
hour on the river with your sister and your cousin, both interested in
keeping a boy straight. What was Sophocles after all (in which Jim took
so little interest) in comparison with a more healthy rule of habit and
purified nature? If only he would but be good, what would it matter
about Sophocles? The Rector sighed with perplexity and impatience. It
was all very well to attempt to keep Jim back, to say he was busy. Would
all that keep him at his book a moment longer than his father’s eye was
on him? And if Jim escaped and stole out by himself, how could it be
known whether his companions would be as innocent as Mab and Florry? Was
it not even a good point in the boy, showing at bottom some traces of
early innocence, that it was with Florry and Mab that he wished to go?
Mr. Plowden turned in from the window and looked at his boy. He was the
only boy of the house, and no doubt he had been petted and spoiled, and
taught to think that everything was to give way to him. The Rector
looked at him with that longing of disappointed love, the father’s
dreadful sense of impotence, the intolerable feeling that a touch given
somewhere somehow, at the right moment, might bring all right if he only
could tell when and how to give it. What did it matter that all his
plans and arrangements should be put out the moment he had made them, if
the right effect could be produced anyhow? Perhaps this little girl,
with her childish innocent mind–who could tell? And at least how
innocent it all was, the boy and the two girls! They would bring no harm
to him, and perhaps–who could tell?

‘You will come home straight, Jim, and get to work again as soon as you
return?’

‘Of course, sir,’ said Jim, opening large eyes, as if he had never
departed from his word in his life. ‘Of course, when I say it I will do
it. If you would but learn that it is the best thing to trust a fellow,’
he said, looking at the Rector with a grieved disappointment which quite
outdid Mr. Plowden’s sentiments of the same kind. The poor Rector could
not restrain a laugh as the young man hurried out of the room, leaving
Sophocles just ready to topple over, on the very edge of the table; but
it was not a cheerful laugh: though, perhaps, there was the chance that
little Mab, if she had only been a little prettier—- Prettiness,
however, as he knew, is not the only thing that matters in things of
this kind.

‘You little brick!’ cried Jim, as they hurried along. ‘I owe you one for
that. What put it into your little head to come and get me off to-day?
for I was at the end of my patience, and could not think of any excuse
to get away.’

‘What should you have done, Jim, if I had not come? read your Greek?’

‘Not if I know it,’ said Jim. ‘I should just have cut and run, excuse or
no excuse. A fellow can’t be shut up all the afternoon, and the sun
shining. It’s cruelty to animals. The old Pater has forgotten that he
was ever young.’

‘But you will keep your promise, Jim, and go back and learn up your
Greek?’

‘Oh, we’ll see about that. Let’s get our pull first. Oh, there’s Flo! I
thought you and I were going alone.’

‘It was Florry who wanted you to come,’ said Mab, with the frankness of
extreme youth, ‘not me. I like to do the pulling myself.’

‘You shall if you like,’ he said. ‘I’m not fond of trouble. And it’s not
much fun you know, after all, to go out with your sister and your
cousin. It’s too much bread and butter. If I’d known that Flo was in it
I shouldn’t have come.’

‘You can go back if you please–to your Greek.’

‘Oh, catch me,’ said the young man.

‘But you will when we come back, Jim?’

‘Perhaps I shall; not if you bully me. So I warn you. I should do my
work all right and make up lost time if I wasn’t bullied for ever and
ever. Every one is at me. You heard what papa said. He ought to know how
a man feels and shut up. But it’s being so much among women, I suppose,
makes a clergyman like that. If he wasn’t a clergyman he wouldn’t nag,
he’d leave that to the women, and then I should feel that there was some
one who understood. But how do you suppose a fellow is to do anything
when from morning to night he hears nothing but “Are you going to your
work, Jim? When do you begin your work? How are you getting on with your
work?” and so forth. If I don’t pass it will be the family’s fault, it
will not be mine. Mab, do you row stroke or bow?’

Mab jumped into the boat and took her place, without otherwise answering
his question; but when they had floated out amid the reflections of the
still river, she found that little tongue, which was not always under
proper control.

‘I like pulling,’ she said, ‘very much. I’d rather a great deal have an
oar myself than sit still and let other people row me; and I like to
bring mother out or–Aunt Jane.’ She was about to say _even_ Aunt Jane,
but happily remembered that Aunt Jane was the mother of both her
companions. ‘But,’ said Mab, with a long, slow stroke, to which
Florence, very anxious to hear what was passing, kept time very badly,
‘one thing I do hate is to pull an idle man.’

‘By Jove!’ burst from the lips of Jim. He had been listening very calmly
up to the last two or three words, amused to hear little Mab’s statement
of what she liked and didn’t like, but quite sure that she could say
nothing that was derogatory to himself. ‘I say, you little cat, why did
you ask me to come out if you meant next moment to give me a scratch
like this?’

‘I told you it was Florry who wanted you and not me.’

‘You might be civil at least,’ said Jim, who had actually reddened under
this assault. ‘What did you come and butter up my father for, to let me
go?’

‘That was different,’ said Mab. ‘When it is against the old people, of
course you are my own side; and then it was fun carrying you off as if
you were something one had captured; and you looked so silly with uncle
holding forth.’ She broke into a laugh, while Jim grew redder and
redder. ‘But one thing I will never hold with,’ said Mab, ‘is that
girls, who are not nearly so strong, should take and row a big heavy
man.’

‘Not so heavy,’ cried Florence, pushing her head forward, neglecting her
stroke entirely, and putting the boat out of trim. ‘Oh, Mab, why should
you reproach him too? He’s no heavier than I am.’

‘Shut up, Flo,’ cried Jim indignantly, ‘I’m close upon eleven stone, and
that’s the least a man should be of my size.’

‘Well,’ said Mab (‘I’ll pull you round, Florry, if you don’t mind)–that
is what I say; girls may do for themselves as much as they please, but
to drag about a great heavy man, whether it is pulling in a boat or
driving in a dog-cart, or whatever it is, is what I don’t like. It is
not what ought to be.’

‘You are so old-fashioned, Mab,’ said Florence anxiously from behind.
‘You and Aunt Emily, you have the old antiquated ways of thinking about
women, that men should take care of them, and work for them, and all
that, when perhaps it is the women that are most able to work, and take
care of others too.’

‘I have no antiquated ways,’ said Mab. ‘I have no ways at all. I don’t
think about women any more than about–other people. Mother and I have
not got many men to take care of us, have we? But I say, it isn’t our
place to pull a heavy man. He should do that for us. I prefer to pull
myself. Do, do, Florry, keep time! And I don’t want your help, Jim. I am
not talking of to-day; I am talking of things in general. It isn’t nice;
it doesn’t look well; it’s not the right thing. I don’t want to have any
man working for me; I’d much rather do it for myself. But he is the
biggest and the strongest, and we oughtn’t to be doing things for him.
That’s my opinion, without any reference to to-day.’

‘You are not very civil,’ said Jim. ‘Why didn’t you leave me at my
Greek, Miss Mab? I might have done a lot, and been free after dinner.
Now, instead of father’s jawing, which I’m used to, I have yours, which
I’m not used to, and a slave in the evening as well. Hold hard a moment,
till I shake off my coat and my boots, and I’ll swim ashore.’

‘Oh, Jim! it will be your death,’ said the frightened Florence, starting
from her seat, and once more putting the boat dreadfully out of trim.

‘Be quiet, sit down!’ cried Mab, ‘or we shall have an accident. Do you
hear? Jim is not going to do anything so silly. I was not speaking of
him; I was only making a general remark. You can sit there and welcome
so long as you steer against me, Jim: for I am pulling the boat round,
can’t you see, and Florry is not the least good.’

‘Girls never are,’ said Jim; ‘the least little thing puts them out.’

‘You see, Florry:’ said Mab, ‘it was on his account you were exciting
yourself and behaving like one of the cockneys on Bank Holiday, and he
doesn’t mind. Let him alone. How far can we go to get back in daylight,
Jim?’

Florence once more put in her word. ‘We can go as far as the island,’
she said.

‘Coming back to-morrow morning?’ said Jim. ‘How should she know? Going
up you can go as far as the lock, and going down you can go as far as
the lock, but not a step more.’

‘That’s like an oracle,’ said Mab.

‘Well, so I am. If I don’t know anything else, I know the river. I know
it every step up to Oxford and down to London. I’m as good as the Thames
Conservancy man. They’d better put me on if they want to look after all
the backwaters and keep the riparians in order. That’s what I could do.
I may not be a dab at Sophocles, but there isn’t a man knows the river
better. You ask any man that knows me, either at Oxford or here.’

‘Then why does not Uncle James try to get you an appointment on the
river? It would be better than going out to the colonies.’

‘Oh, they don’t think so here. In the colonies nobody knows you. You may
go about in a flannel shirt and knickerbockers, and a revolver in your
belt; but if you stay at home they want some work for you that you can
do in a black coat and top hat.’

‘Couldn’t you take care of the riparians and the backwaters in a top
hat, if you liked?’

‘Oh, they like a naval man,’ said Jim; ‘their uniform gives them a
little dignity, don’t you know, whereas I’m nobody.’

‘But it is the same in everything. You can’t be somebody all at once.
You must begin low down,’ said Mab, bending her little person over her
oar with that slow, steady stroke which confused Florence. Florry was
choppy and irregular–one time slow, the next fast; never able to hit
the time which Mab gave her with such steady composure. ‘The way to do,’
said Mab, ‘is to put everything else out of your head, as long as you
are able to, and think of nothing but that. You should never mind what
you like, or what you want, but just set your thoughts on what you are
doing. Look at Florry; she wants to hear what we’re saying, and she
wants to defend you, Jim, that I mayn’t say anything unpleasant; and the
consequence is that if you were not steering against me with all your
might, I should pull the boat round and round.’

‘Florry is only a girl, and a bad specimen,’ said Jim. ‘You should have
let me pull, and then you’d have seen something like pulling.’

‘I am only a girl myself,’ said Mab.

‘But, then, you’re a good specimen,’ said the young man, with a laugh.
‘You keep your eyes in the boat.’

‘Which is what you don’t do, Jim!’

‘How do you know, you little thing, lecturing people older than
yourself? I may not with Sophocles–but I do with other things.’

‘Which other things?’ said Mab.

But Jim made no reply; and here Florry interposed again with strokes
shorter and more irregular than ever, to talk over her cousin’s
shoulder, and ask, though they were not half-way to the island, or even
to the lock for that matter, whether it would be better to turn back and
go home. They lay for a moment in midstream. Mab pausing on her steady
oar to remonstrate, making a picture in the water, the boat floating as
a bird floats in mid air, between the sky and the river, which reflected
every line of cloud and stretch of blue. Some cows at the water’s edge
stood double, feeding, on the very brink, and the trees still bare, but
all downy with life, pushing out a greenness here and there, seemed to
stretch out of the water in reflection to meet the others on the bank.
Watcham lay glorified, one white house above the rest lighting up all
the river with its white shadow in the stream. The boat lay like a thing
enchanted with the three figures shining in afternoon light, above and
below.