by Coulson Kernahan
IT was an impudent thing to do!
No matter how scorching the July sun, no matter how alluring the thought of paddling out to ascertain whether the richly wooded lakeside looked equally lovely from the water; no matter how cunningly old Satan had spread his snare of mischief “for idle hands to do,” by guiding me to the very spot where the little boat lay moored at the water’s edge; no matter with what sophistry these, and many other excuses which I pleaded to a pricking conscience, seemed to mitigate the offence, the fact remains that I acted in a way which was as impudent as it was unpardonable.
The owner of the property generously allowed the public to use a particular footpath through the park. Hence my offence in straying from the permitted footpath and in exploring unpermitted copses and woodlands, until I came to this beautiful sheet of water, was for that very reason all the more graceless and heinous.
But in July, when the holiday spirit is in one’s blood, and when all the world is holiday-making with us, the conventionalities exist only to be set aside. Chaste matrons who, in chill December, would consider that to exhibit more than two inches of stocking above the ankle would be to pass the highwater mark of propriety, and even, to save a new skirt from being muddied, would hesitate to hitch that garment higher by another inch, will, in demoralising July, discard these same stockings altogether, and disport and display themselves, kneebare, with never a blush, upon the beach at Margate or at Brighton.
And I who, when in my proper mind and in dress-coated, white-chokered garb, would not so much as pass a lady in the stalls of a theatre without first apologising for troubling her and asking for her permission, acted on this occasion, and under the demoralising spell of holiday-making and midsummer madness, as any other bounder would act on a Bank Holiday. No hand had pulled aside the drawn lodge-blind to gaze at the intruder as I entered the park gates; no surly keeper had pointed me to a notice board, warning all and sundry that the public must keep to the footpath, as I strolled along; no tradesman’s cart had rattled briskly up the drive to receive or to deliver orders; and when between an avenue of trees I caught a glimpse of the house, it looked so shuttered and sleepy, that I was persuaded “the family”—whoever the family might be—was away, and that none would come to warn me of my trespass. Then the path I had taken, between the trees, had led me down to the water’s edge and to the very spot where the boat lay moored.
Thrusting conscience and the conventionalities aside, I seated myself and sculled lightly out to the middle of the lake. For a good half-hour I pulled hither and thither as my fancy prompted, and as the various views to be obtained from the water seemed most alluringly to open; and then, shipping the sculls, I lay down full length in the bottom of the boat, my arm under my head as a pillow, and my face turned skyward to the sun.
I suppose I must have dropped off into a doze, from which I was aroused by a slight rippling of the water. Being only half awake I did not trouble myself greatly about the matter. “A swan passing,” I murmured sleepily; “or possibly a water-rat or moorhen. Let ’em pass. They’re quite welcome, and I’m too comfortable to stir.”
But stirred I soon was, and to some purpose. Had my boat been lying at the wooded lakeside, instead of in the centre of this beautiful sheet of water, I should have thought at first that a wind-blown branch of July’s own roses had dipped down to rest her unopened blossoms upon the frail craft’s side. For suddenly, upon the gunwale of the boat—just as if a handful of blush rosebuds had shyly peeped over—there appeared four of the tiniest, daintiest, most exquisitely tapered fingertips that ever were seen upon mortal hand. Pink, petite, faultlessly formed and finely proportioned, with pearly, oval nails, as symmetrically cut, as perfectly set and polished as rare opals, the fingertips upon which I looked were so lovely that a king might have craved, as a royal boon, permission to stoop his lips to kiss them. In all the wide world I was ready to swear there was only one other set of fingertips as beautiful, and the very next instant that other set, like love-bird hastening to perch beside its mate, was laid upon the edge of the boat, which now began to rock sideways, as if someone in the water were working up impetus for a spring.
“Lazy bones! lazy bones! Wake up! wake up!” cried a merry voice; and then—Venus rising from the foam was not half so beautiful—there bobbed up, framed in clinging golden hair, at the side of the boat, the fairest young face, the most lovely head and neck and shoulders I have ever seen.
My awakening had come; and the whole thing had happened so suddenly that I do not know which of us was more surprised. All I do know is that the shame and consternation on her face at seeing me were so comic that, but for my anxiety to spare her blushes, I should have laughed outright. Small time, however, had I to laugh; small time had she to blush; for, in her dismay, she suddenly let go her hold of the edge of the boat, which, released from her weight, rolled over like a turning porpoise, as neatly tilting me out of the other side and into the water as if I had been a left crust shaken out of an up-gathered tablecloth by a housewife’s hand.
That those who begin by playing the fool generally end by finding the fat in the fire is proverbial. In making free with other folk’s property I had behaved not only like a fool, but like a mannerless schoolboy; and now, if the fat could not exactly be said to be in the fire, the fool was undoubtedly in the water. Fortunately for this particular fool he happened to be an expert swimmer, or my silly holiday escapade might have ended tragically for my fair capsizer as well as for myself. She, however, showed herself as what, in sporting parlance, is known as “a good pluck’d ’un.”
A moment’s hysterical screaming and frantic beating of the water may be passed by as no more than a concession to her sex, an acknowledgment of a woman’s weakness, and can in no way be said to detract from the courage which she afterwards displayed. In the next instant she had grabbed me (somewhat painfully for me, I admit) by the hair, and manfully—if I may use that word of a woman—raising my head out of the water, had gasped agitatedly, “Can you swim?”
I do not deny that I behaved abominably. I was already as over head and eyes in love with this peerless Lady of the Lake as I had a moment ago been over head and ears in water; and to swim unromantically ashore, there perhaps to be handed over to the care of the local constable, with the prospect of being brought up before my fair capsizer’s father (who was very possibly a magistrate) as a common trespasser, if not as a common thief, did not appeal to me as either romantic or as likely to further my suit. But to appear to owe my life to her, to be in a position to hail her as a heroine and as my preserver, and myself henceforth and for ever her grateful and adoring slave, who, even if he devoted all his remaining years to her service, could never hope to repay her for thus snatching him from a watery grave—to do this was to put myself in a very different light. Were I to admit that I could swim, she would, without the shadow of a doubt, haughtily point me in one direction, while she with equal haughtiness would swim away in the other. But to proclaim myself no swimmer, and consequently helpless, would constitute an appeal to her womanhood which she, being clearly an expert in the water, could not and would not refuse. To do so would at once establish a relationship between us more intimate than I could hope to attain in a twelvemonth spent or misspent in meeting her at her own home (even could I get invited there), or at the houses of mutual acquaintances, supposing such mutual acquaintances to exist. Frankly, I would have pawned my soul for another five minutes in her company. To speak the unpalatable truth meant that the five minutes would undoubtedly be denied me;—meant that she and I must part, never perhaps to meet again. To lie, meant not only making that coveted five minutes my own, but possibly meant more—immeasurably, infinitely more, than this. The thought of what that lie might mean, might win for me, turned my lovesick soul well-nigh delirious. It might mean (and to one man, at least, on earth Paradise seemed possible again) that a hand so soft, so delicate that I could have crushed a dozen such hands in my own huge grasp as easily as one crumples up a score of roseleaves, yet so fateful for all its feebleness that, even as easily as one could crush the roseleaves, so more easily could that tiny hand crush and kill the joy which was upspringing in my heart—a hand so small that it could not span the half of my wrist, yet could hold the whole of my hopes and my heaven—a lie might mean that this tiny hand would for full five paradisiacal minutes be given into my care and keeping, while its owner should be my guardian angel, a wingless angel in a bathing dress, to guide me safely ashore!
Which was it to be—Truth or Falsehood?
“Speak the truth and you’ll shame the Devil!” thundered Duty.
“Tell a falsehood, and you won’t make a fool of yourself,” whispered Desire.
Unhesitatingly I plumped for falsehood. “I can’t swim a stroke,” I said.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We got ashore—or nearly so, at least; and that I in no way assisted to accelerate the journey will be plain, as the phrase goes, to the meanest intelligence.
But sit down in cold blood—if not, fortunately as I was then, in wet clothes—to describe that elysian passing, I may not.
Spirit readers of mine—if spirit readers of mortal book there be—who have been borne on angel pinions to heaven, may be able to enter into my feelings at being thus wafted through magic waters by an angel hand. Gross mortals of flesh and blood may not. But spirit readers have this advantage over me—that whereas they, at the end of their journey, saw the gates of Heaven open, I, at the end of mine, saw the gates of Paradise too rudely closed.
When we were some ten yards from the shore, and while I was rehearsing to myself the touching scene of our landing—I falling on my knees before her, and, in a voice which I intended doing my best to make appear broken with emotion, calling the heavens to witness that but for her I should now be weltering in my grave (I was not exactly sure what “weltering” meant, but it sounded wet and weedy and watery, and, as Milton had used the word in a similar sense, it could not be far wrong)—she, her beautiful eyes suffused with tears, one or two of which, I arranged, should drop upon my upturned worshipping face, would then bend over me and, laying a hand tenderly on my head, would sob, “My poor fellow! Do not give way. You are safe. The danger is past!”—while I was rehearsing this pretty and touching picture, she suddenly stopped. Thus far she had been swimming, and swimming strongly on her breast, striking out with her left arm and supporting my head with her right. Now, as I say, she stopped, and I feared that she was becoming exhausted.
“Put down your feet,” she said, “and see if you can feel the ground.”
I did so, and found that we were in water sufficiently shallow to allow me to stand upright with my chin well above the surface. “Yes,” I said, “we’re safe. My feet are on the ground. How can I ever thank you? How can—”
“Then wade the rest of the way,” she cut me short, cruelly. “Don’t trespass any more! Don’t take boats that don’t belong to you, and don’t get out of your depth again until you have learned to swim.”
The next instant she had dived under and was gone, the flick of her tiny heels, as they came together when she threw them up, seeming like the snap of a derisive finger in my face.
Feeling, and looking, more foolish than I remember ever to have felt and looked before, I waded clumsily to the bank, telling myself, by way of comfort, that her curt dismissal and her sharp words were the result only of the inevitable reaction which comes after a time of tension and nerve strain. But from a clump of rushes, behind which I had reason to think my late rescuer lay hidden, came a sound suspiciously like suppressed laughter; and in somewhat of a temper—for no one likes to be ridiculed by a beautiful woman—I clambered up the bank, an ungainly figure, on all fours.
Again came that rippling music from behind the rushes; so, with a very scarlet face, and with as upright a carriage of head and body as I could assume—a carriage, which I may say for the benefit of the reader was intended to express wounded dignity, but which I had a sneaking suspicion savoured more of self-conscious stiffness and injured pride—I walked angrily away, some verses by Austin Dobson running in my head:
“And that’s how I lost her—a jewel, Incognita—one in a crowd, Nor prudent enough to be cruel, Nor worldly enough to be proud.”
“Only my Incognita,” I said to myself as I entered the hotel, “is ‘prudent enough to be cruel’ and ‘worldly enough to be proud.’ Never mind! I’ve found her, and by heaven! if mortal man can do it, I’ll win her yet. How lovely she looked! How divinely lovely! And was there ever a woman since the world began with such beautiful hands?” At this point my meditations were interrupted by the entrance of the waiter with an express letter in his hand for me, marked “Very Urgent.” It was from the editor of the Charing Cross Magazine.
“Dear Mr. Rissler,” it ran. “Waldorf, the American millionaire, has bought the magazine. He’s got a friend who has done some rather bad drawings of what he thinks looks like the inside of an Opium Den. But the chief has bought them, and has promised his friend to have an article written up to them, to go into the next number. “You’re the man to do it, and I want you to come back by first train, so as to root out an East End Opium Den this very night, and let us have copy tomorrow. Don’t fail.”
“H’m!” I said to myself, twiddling the letter between my fingers. “What a nuisance! I shall never rest till I have found out all about my Lady of the Lake, and I meant to have begun investigations this very night. But a poor devil of a writer of magazine articles and detective stories can’t afford to offend the powers that be—especially so influential an editor as Harrison, or so wealthy a proprietor as Waldorf. So to London I must go, worse luck: to London I must go!” Within half an hour I had changed my clothes, packed, paid my bill, and was in the train. “Goodbye, my lovely Lady Disdain, my dear and lovely Lady of the Lake,” I said, kissing my hand in the direction of my late escapade, as we puffed out of the station; “or rather au revoir, for soon, very soon, we shall meet again.”