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My Lady Caprice(Chapter5)

2006-08-28 23:21

  V. The Episode of the Indian's Aunt

  The sun blazed down, as any truly self-respecting sun should, on a fine August afternoon; yet its heat was tempered by a soft, cool breeze that just stirred the leaves above my head. The river was busy whispering many things to the reeds, things which, had I been wise enough to understand, might have helped me to write many wonderful books, for, as it is so very old, and has both seen and heard so much, it is naturally very wise. But alas! being ignorant of the language of rivers, I had to content myself with my own dreams, and the large, speckled frog, that sat beside me, watching the flow of the river with his big, gold-rimmed eyes.

  He was happy enough I was sure. There was a complacent satisfaction in every line of his fat, mottled body. And as I watched him my mind very naturally reverted to the "Pickwick Papers," and I repeated Mrs. Lyon-Hunter's deathless ode, beginning:

  Can I see thee panting, dying,On a log,Expiring frog!

  The big, green frog beside me listened with polite attention, but, on the whole, seemed strangely unmoved. Remembering the book in my pocket, I took it out; an old book, with battered leathern covers, which has passed through many hands since it was first published, more than two hundred years ago.

  Indeed it is a wonderful, a most delightful book, known to the world as "The Compleat Angler," in which, to be sure, one may read something of fish and fishing, but more about old Izaac's lovable self, his sunny streams and shady pools, his buxom milkmaids, and sequestered inns, and his kindly animadversions upon men and things in general. Yet, as I say, he does occasionally speak of fish and fishing, and amongst other matters, concerning live frogs as bait, after describing the properest method of impaling one upon the hook, he ends with this injunction:

  Treat it as though you loved it, that it may live the longer!

  Up till now the frog had preserved his polite attentiveness in a manner highly creditable to his upbringing, but this proved too much; his over-charged feelings burst from him in a hoarse croak, and he disappeared into the river with a splash.

  "Good-afternoon, Uncle Dick!" said a voice at my elbow, and looking round, I beheld Dorothy. Beneath one arm she carried the fluffy kitten, and in the other hand a scrap of paper.

  "I promised Reginald to give you this," she continued, "and - oh yes - I was to say 'Hist!' first."

  "Really! And why were you to say 'Hist' ?"

  "Oh, because all Indians always say 'Hist!' you know."

  "To be sure they do," I answered; "but am I to understand that you are an Indian?"

  "Not ta-day," replied Dorothy, shaking her head. "Last time Reginald painted me Auntie was awfull' angry - it took her and nurse ages to get it all off - the war-paint, I mean - so I'm afraid I can't be an Indian again!"

  "That's very unfortunate!" I said.

  "Yes, isn't it; but nobody can be an Indian chief without any war-paint, can they?"

  "Certainly not," I answered. "You seem to know a great deal about it."

  "Oh, yes," nodded Dorothy. "Reginald has a book all about Indians and full of pictures - and here's the letter," she ended, and slipped it into my hand.

  Smoothing out its many folds and creases, I read as follows:

  To my pail-face brother:

  Ere another moon, Spotted Snaik will be upon the war-path, and red goar shall flo in buckkit-fulls.

  "It sounds dreadful, doesn't it?" said Dorothy, hugging her kitten.

  "Horrible!" I returned.

  "He got it out of the book, you know," she went on, "but I put in the part about the buckets - a bucket holds such an awful lot, don't you think? But there's some more on the other page." Obediently I turned, and read:

  'ere another moon, scalps shall dangel at belt of Spotted Snaik, for in his futsteps lurk deth, and distruksion. But fear not pail-face, thou art my brother - fairwell.

  Sined SPOTTED SNAIK.

  "There was lots more, but we couldn't get it in," said Dorothy. Squeezed up into a corner I found this postscript:

  If you will come and be an Indian Cheef unkel dick, I will make you a spear, and you can be Blood-in-the-Eye. He was a fine chap and nobody could beat him except Spotted Snaik, will you Unkel dick?

  "He wants you to write an answer, and I'm to take it to him," said Dorothy.

  "Blood-in-the-Eye!" I repeated; "no, I'm afraid not. I shouldn't object so much to becoming a red-skin - for a time - but Blood-in-the-Eye! Really, Dorothy, I'm afraid I couldn't manage that."

  "He was very brave," returned Dorothy, "and awfull' strong, and could - could 'throw his lance with such unerring aim, as to pin his foe to the nearest tree - in the twinkle of an eye.' That's in the book, you know."

  "There certainly must be a great deal of satisfaction in pinning one's foe to a tree," I nodded.

  "Y-e-e-s, I suppose so," said Dorothy rather dubiously.

  "And where is Spotted Snake - I mean, what is he doing?"

  "Oh, he's down by the river with his bow and arrow, scouting for canoes. It was great fun! He shot at a man in a boat - and nearly hit him, and the man got very angry indeed, so we had to hide among the bushes, just like real Indians. Oh, it was fine!"

  "But your Auntie Lisbeth said you weren't to play near the river, you know," I said.

  "That's what I told him," returned Dorothy, "but he said that Indians didn't have any aunts, and then I didn't know what to say. What do you think about it, Uncle Dick?"

  "Well," I answered, "now I come to consider, I can't remember ever having heard of an Indian's aunt."

  "Poor things!" said Dorothy, giving the fluffy kitten a kiss between the ears.

  "Yes, it's hard on them, perhaps, and yet," I added thoughtfully, "an aunt is sometimes rather a mixed blessing. Still, whether an Indian possesses an aunt or not, the fact remains that water has an unpleasant habit of wetting one, and on the whole, I think I'll go and see what Spotted Snake is up to."

  "Then I think I'll come with you a little way," said Dorothy, as I rose. "You see, I have to get Louise her afternoon's milk."

  "And how is Louise?" I inquired, pulling the fluffy kitten's nearest ear.

  "Very well, thank you," answered Dorothy demurely; "but oh dear me! kittens 'are such a constant source of worry and anxiety!' Auntie Lisbeth sometimes says that about Reginald and me. I wonder what she would say if we were kittens!"

  "Bye the bye, where is your Auntie Lisbeth?" I asked in a strictly conversational tone.

  "Well, she's lying in the old boat."

  "In the old boat!" I repeated.

  "Yes," nodded Dorothy; "when it's nice and warm and sleepy, like to-day, she takes a book, and a pillow, and a sunshade, and she goes and lies in the old boat under the Water-stairs. There, just look at this naughty Louise!" she broke off, as the kitten scrambled up to her shoulder and stood there, balancing itself very dextrously with curious angular movements of its tail; "that's because she thinks I've forgotten her milk, you know; she's dreadfully impatient, but I suppose I must humour her this once. Good-afternoon!" And, having given me her hand in her demure, old-fashioned way, Dorothy hurried off, the kitten still perched upon her shoulder, its tail jerking spasmodically with her every step.

  In a little while I came in view of the Water-stairs, yet although I paused more than once to look about me, I saw no sign of the Imp. Thinking he was most probably 'in ambush' somewhere, I continued my way, whistling an air out of "The Geisha" to attract his notice. Ten minutes or more elapsed, however, without any sign of him, and I was already close to the stairs, when I stopped whistling all at once, and holding my breath, crept forward on tiptoe.

  There before me was the old boat, and in it - her cheek upon a crimson cushion and the sun making a glory of her tumbled hair - was Lisbeth - asleep.

  Being come as near as I dared for fear of waking her, I sat down, and lighting my pipe, fell to watching her - the up-curving shadow of her lashes, the gleam of teeth between the scarlet of her parted lips, and the soft undulation of her bosom. And from the heavy braids of her hair my glance wandered down to the little tan shoe peeping at me beneath her skirt, and I called to mind how Goethe has said:

  'A pretty foot is not only a continual joy, but it is the one element of beauty that defies the assaults of Time,'

  Sometimes a butterfly hovered past, a bee filled the air with his drone, or a bird settled for a moment upon the stairs near-by to preen a ruffled feather, while soft and drowsy with distance came the ceaseless roar of the weir.

  I do not know how long I had sat thus, supremely content, when I was suddenly aroused by a rustling close at hand.

  "Hist!"

  I looked up sharply, and beheld a head, a head adorned with sundry feathers, and a face hideously streaked with red and green paint; but there was no mistaking those golden curls - it was the Imp!

  "Hist!" he repeated, bringing out the word with a prolonged hiss, and then - before I could even guess at his intention - there was the swift gleam of a knife, a splash of the severed painter, and caught by the tide the old boat swung out, and was adrift.

  The Imp stood gazing on his handiwork with wide eyes, and then as I leaped to my feet something in my look seemed to frighten him, for without a word he turned and fled. But all my attention was centred in the boat, which was drifting slowly into mid-stream with Lisbeth still fast asleep. And as I watched its sluggish progress, with a sudden chill I remembered the weir, which foamed and roared only a short half-mile away. If the boat once got drawn into that - !

  Now, I am quite aware that under these circumstances the right and proper thing for me to have done, would have been to throw aside my coat, tear off my boots, etc., and "boldly breast the foamy flood." But I did neither, for the simple reason that once within the 'foamy flood' aforesaid, there would have been very little chance of my ever getting out again, for - let me confess the fact with the blush of shame - I am no swimmer.

  Yet I was not idle, far otherwise. Having judged the distance between the drifting boat and the bank, I began running along, seeking the thing I wanted. And presently, sure enough, I found it - a great pollard oak, growing upon the edge of the water, that identical tree with the 'stickie-out' branches which has already figured in these narratives as the hiding-place of a certain pair of silk stockings.

  Hastily swinging myself up, I got astride the lowest branch, which projected out over the water. I had distanced the boat by some hundred yards, and as I sat there I watched its drift, one minute full of hope, and the next as miserably uncertain. My obvious intention was to crawl out upon the branch until it bent with my weight, and so let myself into, or as near the boat as possible. It was close now, so close that I could see the gleam of Lisbeth's hair and the point of the little tan shoe. With my eyes on this, I writhed my way along the bough, which bent more and more as I neared the end. Here I hung, swaying up and down and to and fro in a highly unpleasant manner, while I waited the crucial moment.

  Never upon this whole round earth did anything creep as that boat did. There was a majestic deliberation in its progress that positively maddened me. I remember to have once read an article

  somewhere upon the "Sensibility of Material Things," or something of the sort, which I had forgotten long since, but as I hung there suspended between heaven and earth, it came back to me with a rush, and I was perfectly certain that, recognising my precarious position, that time-worn, ancient boat checked its speed out of "pure cussedness."

  But all things have an end, and so, little by little the blunt bow crept nearer until it was in the very shade of my tree. Grasping the branch, I let myself swing at arm's length; and then I found that I was at least a foot too near the bank. Edging my way, therefore, still further along the branch, I kicked out in a desperate endeavour to reach the boat, and, the bough swaying with me, caught my toe inside the gunwale, drew it under me, and loosing my grasp, was sprawling upon my hands and knees, but safe aboard.

  To pick myself up was the work of a moment, yet scarcely had I done so, when Lisbeth opened her eyes, and sitting up, stared about her.

  "Why - where am I?" she exclaimed.

  "On the river," I answered cheerfully. "Glorious afternoon, Lisbeth, isn't it?"

  "How-in-the-world did you get here?" she inquired.

  "Well," I answered, "I might say I dropped in as it were." Lisbeth brushed the hair from her temples, and turned to me with an imperious gesture.

  "Then please take me back at once," she said.

  "I would with pleasure," I returned, "only that you forgot to bring the oars."

  "Why, then, we are adrift!" she said, staring at me with frightened eyes, and clasping her hands nervously.

  "We are," I nodded; "but, then, it's perfect weather for boating, Lisbeth!" And I began to look about for something that might serve as a paddle. But the stretchers had disappeared long since - the old tub was a sheer hulk, so to speak. An attempt to tear up a floor board resulted only in a broken nail and bleeding fingers; so I presently desisted, and rolling up my sleeves endeavoured to paddle with my hands. But finding this equally futile, I resumed my coat, and took out pipe and tobacco.

  "Oh, Dick! is there nothing you can do?" she asked, with a brave attempt to steady the quiver in her voice.

  "With your permission, I'll smoke, Lisbeth."

  "But the weir!" she cried; "have you forgotten the weir?"

  "No," I answered, shaking my head; "it has a way of obtruding itself on one's notice - "

  "Oh, it sounds hateful - hateful!" she said with a shiver.

  "Like a strong wind among trees!" I nodded, as I filled my pipe. We were approaching a part of the river where it makes a sharp bend to the right; and well I knew what lay beyond - the row of posts, painted white, with the foam and bubble of seething water below. We should round that bend in about ten minutes, I judged; long before then we might see a boat, to be sure; if not - well, if the worst happened, I could but do my best; in the meantime I would smoke a pipe; but I will admit my fingers trembled as I struck a match.

  "It sounds horribly close!" said Lisbeth.

  "Sound is very deceptive, you know," I answered.

  "Only last month a boat went over, and the man was drowned!" shuddered Lisbeth,

  "Poor chap!" I said. "Of course it's different at night - the river is awfully deserted then, you know, and - "

  "But it happened in broad day light!" said Lisbeth, almost in a whisper. She was sitting half turned from me, her gaze fixed on the bend of the river, and by chance her restless hand had found and begun to fumble with the severed painter.

  So we drifted on, watching the gliding banks, while every moment the roar of the weir grew louder and more threatening.

  "Dick," she said suddenly, "we can never pass that awful place without oars!" and she began to tie knots in, the rope with fingers that shook pitifully.

  "Oh, I don't know!" I returned, with an assumption of ease I was very far from feeling; "and then, of course, we are bound to meet a boat or something - "

  "But suppose we don't?"

  "Oh, well, we aren't there yet - and er - let's talk of fish."

  "Ah, Dick," she cried, "how can you treat the matter so lightly when we may be tossing down there in that awful water so very soon! We can never pass that weir without oars, and you know it, and - and - oh, Dick, why did you do it - how could you have been so mad ?"

  "Do what?" I inquired, staring.

  With a sudden gesture she rose to her knees and fronted me.

  "This!" she cried, and held up the severed painter. "It has been cut! Oh, Dick! Dick! how could you be so mad."

  "Lisbeth !" I exclaimed, "do you mean to say that you think - "

  "I know!" she broke in, and turning away, hid her face in her hands. We were not so very far from the bend now, and seeing this, a sudden inspiration came upon me, by means of which I might prove her mind towards me once and for all; and as she kneeled before me with averted face, I leaned forward and took her hands in mine.

  "Lisbeth," I said, "supposing I did cut the boat adrift like a - a fool - endangering your life for a mad, thoughtless whim - could you forgive me?"

  For a long moment she remained without answering, then very slowly she raised her head:

  "Oh. Dick!" was all she said, but in her eyes I read the wonder of wonders.

  "But, Lisbeth," I stammered, "could you still love me - even - even if, through my folly, the worst should happen and we - we - "

  "I don't think I shall be so very much afraid, Dick, if you will hold me close like this," she whispered.

  The voice of the weir had swelled into a roar by now, yet I paid little heed; for me all fear was swallowed up in a great wondering happiness.

  Dick," she whispered, "you will hold me tight, you w ill not let me go when - when - "

  "Never," I answered; "nothing could ever take you from me now." As I spoke I raised my eyes, and glancing about beheld something which altered the whole aspect of affairs - something which changed tragedy into comedy all in a moment - a boat was coming slowly round the bend.

  "Lisbeth, look up!" With a sigh she obeyed, her clasp tightening on mine, and a dreadful expectation in her eyes. Then all at once it was gone, her pale cheeks grew suddenly scarlet, and she slipped from my arms; and thereafter I noticed how very carefully her eyes avoided mine.

  The boat came slowly into view, impelled by one who rowed with exactly that amount of splashing which speaks the true-born Cockney. By dint of much exertion and more splashing, he presently ranged alongside in answer to my hail.

  "Wo't - a haccident then?" he inquired.

  "Something of the sort," I nodded. "Will you be so kind as to tow us to the bank yonder?"

  "Hanythink to hoblige!" he grinned, and having made fast the painter, proceeded to splash us to terra-firma. Which done, he grinned again, waved his hat, and splashed upon his way. I made the boat secure and turned to Lisbeth. She was staring away towards the weir.

  "Lisbeth," I began.

  "I thought just now that - that it was the end!" she said, and shivered.

  "And at such times," I added, "one sometimes says things one would not have said under ordinary circumstances. My dear, I quite understand-quite, and I'll try to forget - you needn't fear."

  "Do you think you can?" she asked, turning to look at me.

  "I can but try," I answered. Now as I spoke I wasn't sure, but I thought I saw the pale ghost of the dimple by her mouth.

  We walked back side by side along the river-path, very silently, for the most part, yet more than once I caught her regarding me covertly and with a puzzled air.

  "Well?" I said at last, tentatively.

  "I was wondering why you did it, Dick? Oh, ii was mean! cruel! wicked! How could you ?"

  "Oh, well"-and I shrugged my shoulders, anathematising the Imp mentally the while.

  "If I hadn't noticed that the rope was freshly cut, I should have thought it an accident," she went on."

  "Naturally!" I said."

  "And then, again, how came you in the boat?""

  "To be sure!" I nodded."

  Still, I can scarcely believe that you would willfully jeopardise both our lives - my life!"

  "A man who would do such a thing," I exclaimed, carried away by the heat of the moment, "would be a - a - "

  "Yes," said Lisbeth quickly, "he would."

  " -And utterly beyond the pale of all forgiveness!"

  "Yes," said Lisbeth, "of course."

  "And," I was beginning again, but meeting her searching glance, stopped. "And you forgave me, Lisbeth," I ended.

  "Did I?" she said, with raised brows.

  "Didn't you?"

  "Not that I remember."

  "In the boat?"

  "I never said so?"

  "Not in words, perhaps, but you implied as much." Lisbeth had the grace to blush.

  "Do I understand that I am not forgiven after all?"

  "Not until I know why you did such a mad, thoughtless trick," she answered, with that determined set of her chin which I knew so well.

  That I should thus shoulder the responsibility for the Imp's misdeeds was ridiculous, and wrong as it was unjust, for if ever boy deserved punishment that boy was the Imp. And yet, probably because he was the Imp, or because of that school-boy honour which forbids "sneaking," and which I carried with me still, I held my peace; seeing which, Lisbeth turned and left me.

  I stood where I was, with head bent in an attitude suggestive of innocence, broken hopes, and gentle resignation, but in vain; she never once looked back. Still, martyr though I was, the knowledge that I had immolated myself upon the altar of friendship filled me with a sense of conscious virtue that I found not ill-pleasing. Howbeit, seeing I am but human after all, I sat down and re-filling my pipe, fell once more anathematising the Imp.

  "Hist!"

  A small shape flittered from behind an adjacent tree, and lo! the subject of my thoughts stood before me.

  Imp' I said "come here." He obeyed readily. "When you cut that rope and set your Auntie Lisbeth adrift, you didn't remember the man who was drowned in the weir last month, did you?"

  "No!" he answered, staring.

  "Of course not," I nodded; "but all the same it is not your fault that your Auntie Lisbeth is not drowned - just as he was,"

  "Oh!" exclaimed the Imp, and his beloved bow slipped from his nerveless fingers.

  "Imp," I went on, "it was a wicked thing to cut that rope, a mean, cruel trick, Don't you think so?"

  "I 'specks it was, Uncle Dick."

  "Don't you think you ought to be punished?" He nodded. "Very well," I answered, "I'll punish you myself. Go and cut me a nice, straight switch," and I handed him my open penknife. Round-eyed, the Imp obeyed, and for a space there was a prodigious cracking and snapping of sticks. In a little while he returned with three, also the blade of my knife was broken, for which he was profusely apologetic.

  "Now," I said as I selected the weapon fittest for the purpose, "I am going to strike you hard on either hand with this stick that is, if you think you deserve it."

  "Was Aunt Lisbeth nearly drowned - really ?" he inquired.

  "Very nearly, and was only saved by a chance."

  "All right, Uncle Dick, hit me," he said, and held out his hand. The stick whizzed and fell - once - twice. I saw his face grow scarlet and the tears leap to his eyes, but he uttered no sound.

  "Did it hurt very much, my Imp?" I inquired, as I tossed the stick aside. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak, while I turned to light my pipe, wasting three matches quite fruitlessly.

  "Uncle Dick," he burst out at last, struggling manfully against his sobs, "I - I'm awfull' - sorry - "

  "Oh, ifs all right now, Imp. Shake hands!" Joyfully the little, grimy fingers clasped mine, and from that moment I think there grew up between us a new understanding.

  "Why, Imp, my darling, you're crying!" exclaimed a voice, and with a rustle of skirts Lisbeth was down before him on her knees.

  "I know I am - 'cause I'm awfull' sorry - an' Uncle Dick's whipped my hands - an' I'm glad!"

  "Whipped your hands?' cried Lisbeth, clasping him closer, and glaring at me, "Whipped your hands - how dare he! What for?"

  "'Cause I cut the rope an' let the boat go away with you, an' you might have been drowned dead in the weir, an' I'm awfull' glad Uncle Dick whipped me."

  "0-h-h!" exclaimed Lisbeth, and it was a very long drawn "oh!" indeed.

  "I don't know what made me do it," continued the imp. "I 'specks it was my new knife - it was so nice an sharp, you know."

  "Well, it's all right now, my Imp," I said, fumbling for a match in a singularly clumsy manner. "If you ask me, I think we are all better friends than ever - or should be. I know I should be fonder of your Auntie Lisbeth even than before, and take greater care of her, if I were you. And - and now take her in to tea, my Imp, and - and see that she has plenty to eat," and lifting my hat I turned away. But Lisbeth was beside me, and her hand was on my arm before I had gone a yard.

  "We are having tea in the same old place - under the trees. If you would care to - to - would you?"

  "Yes, do - oh do, Uncle Dick!"cried the Imp. "I'll go and tell Jane to set a place for you," and he bounded off.

  "I didn't hit him very hard," I said, breaking a somewhat awkward silence; "but you see there are some things a gentleman cannot do. I think he understands now."

  "Oh, Dick!" she said very softly; "and to think I could imagine you had done such a thing - you; and to think that you should let me think you had done such a thing - and all to shield that Imp? Oh, Dick! no wonder he is so fond of you. He never talks of any one but you - I grow quite jealous sometimes. But, Dick, how did you get into that boat?"

  "By means of a tree with 'stickie-out' branches."

  "Do you mean to say - "

  "That, as I told you before, I dropped in, as it were."

  "But supposing you had slipped?"

  "But I didn't."

  "And you can't swim a stroke!"

  "Not that I know of."

  "Oh, Dick! can you ever forgive me?"

  "On three conditions."

  "Well?"

  "First, that you let me remember everything you said to me while we were drifting down to the river."

  "That depends, Dick. And the second?"

  "The second lies in the fact that not far from the village of Down, in Kent, there stands an old house - a quaint old place that is badly in want of some one to live in it - an old house that is lonely for a woman's sweet presence and gentle, busy hands, Lisbeth!"

  "And the third?" she asked very softly.

  "Surely you can guess that?"

  "No, I can't, and, besides, there's Dorothy coming - and - oh, Dick!"

  "Why, Auntie," exclaimed Dorothy, as she came up, "how red you are! I knew you'd get sunburned, lying in that old boat without a parasol! But, then, she will do it, Uncle Dick - oh, she will do it!"

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