A punt and a rowing-boat were racing lazily toward Sunbury on a day sobright that you might have passed women with their hair in long curlsand forgiven them.

  'I say, Dick,' said one of the scullers, 'are they engaged?'

  Will was the speaker, and in asking the question he caught a crab. Mary,with her yellow sleeves turned up at the wrist, a great straw hat on herhead, ran gaily after her pole, and the punt jerked past. If there areany plain girls let them take to punting and be beautiful.

  Dick, who was paddling rather than pulling stroke, turned round on hisyoung brother sharply.

  'Whom do you mean?' he asked, speaking low, so that the other occupantsof the boat should not hear him, 'Mary and Dowton?'

  'No,' said Will, 'Mary and Angus. I wonder what they see in her.'

  They were bound for a picnicking resort up the river; Mrs. Meredith,Mary, and Sir Clement in the punt, and the others in the boat. If Robwas engaged he took it gloomily. He sat in the stern with Mr. Meredith,while Nell hid herself away beneath a many-coloured umbrella in theprow; and when he steered the boat into a gondola, he only saidvacantly to its occupants, 'It is nothing at all,' as if they had runinto him. Nell's father said something about not liking the appearanceof the sky, and Rob looked at him earnestly for such a length of timebefore replying that Mr. Meredith was taken aback. At times the puntcame alongside, and Mary addressed every one in the boat except Rob. Theonly person in the punt whom Rob never looked at was Mary. Dick watchedthem uneasily, and noticed that once, when Mary nearly followed her poleinto the water, Rob, who seemed to be looking in the opposite direction,was the first to see what had happened. Then Dick pulled so savagelythat he turned the boat round.

  That morning at breakfast in his chambers Rob had no thought of spendingthe day on the river. He had to be at the _Wire_ office at ten o'clockin the evening, and during the day he meant to finish one of the manyarticles which he still wrote for other journals that would seldom takethem. The knowledge that Sir Clement Dowton had been to Moleseydisquieted him, chiefly because Mary Abinger had said nothing about it.Having given himself fifty reasons for her reticence, he pushed themfrom him, and vowed wearily that he would go to the house-boat no more.Then Dick walked in to suggest that they might run down for an hour ortwo to Molesey, and Rob agreed at once. He shaped out in the train asubtle question about Sir Clement that he intended asking Mary, but onreaching the plank he saw her feeding the swans, with the baronet by herside. Rob felt like a conjurer whose trick has not worked properly.Giving himself just half a minute to reflect that it was all over, heaffected the coldly courteous, and smiled in a way that was meant to beheart-rending. Mary did not mind that, but it annoyed her to see theband of his necktie slipping over his collar.

  It was the day of the Sunbury Regatta, but the party from the _TawnyOwl_ twisted past the racers, leaving Dick, who wanted a newspaper,behind. When he rejoined them beyond the village, the boat was towingthe punt.

  'Why,' said Dick, in some astonishment to Rob, who was rowing now, 'Idid not know you could scull like that.'

  'I have been practising a little,' answered Rob.

  'When he came down here the first time,' Mrs. Meredith explained to SirClement, 'he did not know how to hold an oar. I am afraid he is one ofthose men who like to be best at everything.'

  'He certainly knows how to scull now,' admitted the baronet, beginningto think that Rob was perhaps a dangerous man. Sir Clement was a manlygentleman, but his politics were that people should not climb out of thestation they were born into.

  'No,' Dick said, in answer to a question from Mr. Meredith, 'I couldonly get a local paper. The woman seemed surprised at my thinking shewould take in the _Scalping Knife_ or the _Wire_, and said, "We've got apaper of our own."'

  'Read out the news to us, Richard,' suggested Mrs. Meredith. Dickhesitated.

  'Here, Will,' he said to his brother, 'you got that squeaky voice ofyours specially to proclaim the news from a boat to a punt ten yardsdistant. Angus is longing to pull us up the river unaided.'

  Will turned the paper round and round.

  'Here is a funny thing,' he bawled out, 'about a stick. "A curiousstory, says a London correspondent, is going the round of the clubsto-day about the walking-stick of a well-known member of Parliament,whose name I am not at liberty to mention. The story has not, so far asI am aware, yet appeared in print, and it conveys a lesson to allpersons who carry walking-sticks with knobs for handles, which generatea peculiar disease in the palm of the hand. The member of Parliamentreferred to, with whom I am on intimate terms----"'

  Rob looked at Dick, and they both groaned.

  'My stick again,' murmured Rob.

  'Read something else,' cried Dick, shivering.

  'Eh, what is wrong?' asked Mr. Meredith.

  'You must know,' said Dick, 'that the first time I met Angus he told meimprudently some foolish story about a stick that bred a disease in theowner's hand, owing to his pressing so heavily on the ball it had by wayof a handle. I touched the story up a little, and made half a guinea outof it. Since then that note has been turning up in a new dress in themost unlikely places. First the London correspondents swooped down onit, and telegraphed it all over the country as something that hadhappened to well-known Cabinet Ministers. It appeared in the Paris_Figaro_ as a true story about Sir Gladstone, and soon afterwards it wasacross the Channel as a reminiscence of Thiers. Having done another tourof the provinces, it was taken to America by a lecturer, who exhibitedthe stick. Next it travelled the Continent, until it was sent home againby Paterfamilias Abroad, writing to the _Times_, who said that the manwho owned the stick was a well-known Alpine guide. Since then we haveheard of it fitfully as doing well in Melbourne and Arkansas. It figuredin the last volume, or rather two volumes, of autobiography published,and now, you see, it is going the round of the clubs again, preparatoryto starting on another tour. I wish you had kept your stick to yourself,Angus.'

  'That story will never die,' Rob said, in a tone of conviction. 'It willgo round and round the world till the crack of doom. Our children'schildren will tell it to each other.'

  'Yes,' said Dick, 'and say it happened to a friend of theirs.'

  A field falls into the river above Sunbury, in which there is a clump oftrees of which many boating parties know. Under the shadow of these Mrs.Meredith cast a table-cloth and pegged it down with salt-cellars.

  'As we are rather in a hurry,' she said to the gentlemen, 'I shouldprefer you not to help us.'

  Rob wandered to the river-side with Will, who would have liked to knowwhether he could jump a gate without putting his hands on it; and theother men leant against the trees, wondering a little, perhaps, whyladies enjoy in the summer-time making chairs and tables of the ground.

  Rob was recovering from his scare, and made friends with Mary's youngbrother. By particular request he not only leapt the gate, but lifted itoff its hinges, and this feat of strength so impressed Will that hewould have brought the whole party down to see it done. Will was as fondof Mary as a proper respect for himself would allow, but he thought shewould be a lucky girl if she got a fellow who could play with a heavygate like that.

  Being a sharp boy, Will noticed a cloud settle on Rob's face, andlooking toward the clump of trees, he observed that Mary and the baronetwere no longer there. In the next field two figures were disappearing,the taller, a man in a tennis jacket, carrying a pail. Sir Clement hadbeen sent for water, and Mary had gone with him to show him the spring.Rob stared after them; and if Will could have got hold of Mary he wouldhave shaken her for spoiling everything.

  Mrs. Meredith was meditating sending some one to the spring to show themthe way back, when Sir Clement and Mary again came into sight. They didnot seem to be saying much, yet were so engrossed that they zigzaggedtoward the rest of the party like persons seeking their destination in amist. Just as they reached the trees Mary looked up so softly at hercompanion that Rob turned away
in an agony.

  'It is a long way to the spring,' were Mary's first words, as if sheexpected to be taken to task for their lengthened absence.

  'So it seems,' said Dick.

  The baronet crossed with the pail to Mrs. Meredith, and stopped half-waylike one waking from a dream. Mrs. Meredith held out her hand for thepail, and the baronet stammered with vexation. Simultaneously the wholeparty saw what was wrong, but Will only was so merciless as to put thediscovery into words.

  'Why,' cried the boy, pausing to whistle in the middle of his sentence,'you have forgotten the water!'

  It was true. The pail was empty. Sir Clement turned it upside down, andmade a seat of it.

  'I am so sorry,' he said to Mrs. Meredith, trying to speak lightly. 'Iassure you I thought I had filled the pail at the spring. It is entirelymy fault, for I told Miss Abinger I had done so.'

  Mary's face was turned from the others, so that they could not see howshe took the incident. It gave them so much to think of that Will wasthe only one of the whole party who saw its ridiculous aspect.

  'Put it down to sunstroke, Miss Meredith,' the baronet said to Nell; 'Ishall never allow myself to be placed in a position of trust again.'

  'Does that mean,' asked Dick, 'that you object to being sent back againto the spring?'

  'Ah, I forgot,' said Sir Clement. 'You may depend on me this time.'

  He seized the pail once more, glad to get away by himself to some placewhere he could denounce his stupidity unheard, but Mrs. Meredith wouldnot let him go. As for Mary, she was looking so haughty now that no onewould have dared to mention the pail again.

  During the meal Dick felt compelled to talk so much that he wasunusually dull company for the remainder of the week. The others wereonly genial now and again. Sir Clement sought in vain to gather fromMary's eyes that she had forgiven him for making the rest of the partycouple him and her in their thoughts. Mrs. Meredith would have liked totake her daughter aside and discuss the situation, and Nell was lookingcovertly at Rob, who, she thought, bore it bravely. Rob had latelylearned carving from a handbook, and was dissecting a fowl, murmuring tohimself, 'Cut from _a_ to _b_ along the line _f g_, taking care to severthe wing at the point _k_.' Like all the others, he thought that Maryhad promised to be the baronet's wife, and Nell's heart palpitated forhim when she saw how gently he passed Sir Clement the mustard. Such aload lay on Rob that he felt suffocated. Nell noticed indignantly thatMary was not even 'nice' to him. For the first time in her life, or atleast for several weeks, Miss Meredith was wroth with Miss Abinger. Marymight have been on the rack, but she went on proudly eating bread andchicken. Relieved of his fears, Dick raged internally at Mary fortreating Angus cruelly, and Nell, who had always dreaded lest thingsshould not go as they had gone, sat sorrowfully because she had not beendisappointed. They all knew how much they cared for Rob now, all exceptMary of the stony heart.

  Sir Clement began to tell some travellers' tales, omitting many thingsthat were creditable to his bravery, and Rob found himself listeningwith a show of interest, wondering a little at his own audacity incompeting with such a candidate. By and by some members of the littleparty drifted away from the others, and an accident left Mary and Robtogether. Mary was aimlessly plucking the berries from a twig in herhand, and all the sign she gave that she knew of Rob's presence was innot raising her head. If love is ever unselfish his was at that moment.He took a step forward, and then Mary, starting back, looked roundhurriedly in the direction of Sir Clement. What Rob thought was hermeaning flashed through him, and he stood still in pain.

  'I am sorry you think so meanly of me,' he said, and passed on. He didnot see Mary's arms rise involuntarily, as if they would call him back.But even then she did not realise what Rob's thoughts were. A few yardsaway Rob, moving blindly, struck against Dick.

  'Ah, I see Mary there,' her brother said, 'I want to speak to her. Why,how white you are, man!'

  'Abinger,' Rob answered hoarsely, 'tell me. I must know. Is she engagedto Dowton?'

  Dick hesitated. He felt sore for Rob. 'Yes, she is,' he replied. 'Youremember I spoke of this to you before.' Then Dick moved on to have itout with Mary. She was standing with the twig in her hand, just as Robhad left her.

  'Mary,' said her brother bluntly, 'this is too bad. I would haveexpected it from any one sooner than from you.'

  'What are you talking about?' asked Mary frigidly.

  'I am talking about Angus, my friend. Yes, you may smile, but it is notplay to him.'

  'What have I done to your friend?' said Mary, looking Dick in the face.

  'You have crushed the life for the time being out of as fine a fellowas I ever knew. You might at least have amused yourself with some one alittle more experienced in the ways of women.'

  'How dare you, Dick!' exclaimed Mary, stamping her foot. All at onceDick saw that though she spoke bravely her lips were trembling. A suddenfear seized him.

  'I presume that you are engaged to Dowton?' he said quickly.

  'It is presumption certainly,' replied Mary.

  'Why, what else could any one think after that ridiculous affair of thewater?'

  'I shall never forgive him for that,' Mary said, flushing.

  'But he----'

  'No. Yes, he did, but we are not engaged.'

  'You mean to say that you refused him?'


  Dick thought it over, tapping the while on a tree-trunk like awoodpecker.

  'Why?' he asked at last.

  Mary shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing.

  'You seemed exceedingly friendly,' said Dick, 'when you returned heretogether.'

  'I suppose,' Mary said bitterly, 'that the proper thing in thecircumstances would have been to wound his feelings unnecessarily asmuch as possible?'

  'Forgive me, dear,' Dick said kindly; 'of course I misunderstood--butthis will be a blow to our father.'

  Mary looked troubled.

  'I could not marry him, you know, Dick,' she faltered.

  'Certainly not,' Dick said, 'if you don't care sufficiently for him;and yet he seems a man that a girl might care for.'

  'Oh, he is,' Mary exclaimed. 'He was so manly and kind that I wanted tobe nice to him.'

  'You have evidently made up your mind, sister mine,' Dick said, 'to diea spinster.'

  'Yes,' said Mary, with a white face.

  Suddenly Dick took both her hands, and looked her in the face.

  'Do you care for any other person, Mary?' he asked sharply.

  Mary shook her head, but she did not return her brother's gaze. Herhands were trembling. She tried to pull them from him, but he held herfirmly until she looked at him. Then she drew up her head proudly. Herhands ceased to shake. She had become marble again.

  Dick was not deceived. He dropped her hands, and leant despondentlyagainst a tree.

  'Angus----' he began.

  'You must not,' Mary cried; and he stopped abruptly.

  'It is worse than I could have feared,' Dick said.

  'No, it is not,' said Mary quickly. 'It is nothing. I don't know whatyou mean.'

  'It was my fault bringing you together. I should have been more----'

  'No, it was not. I met him before. Whom are you speaking about?'

  'Think of our father, Mary.'

  'Oh, I have!'

  'He is not like you. How could he dare----'

  'Dick, don't.'

  Will bounced towards them with a hop, step, and jump, and Mrs. Meredithwas signalling that she wanted both.

  'Never speak of this again,' Mary said in a low voice to Dick as theywalked toward the others.

  'I hope I shall never feel forced to do so,' Dick replied.

  'You will not,' Mary said, in her haste. 'But, Dick,' she addedanxiously, 'surely the others did not think what you thought? It wouldbe so unpleasant for Sir Clement.'

  'Well, I can't say,' Dick answered.

  'At all events, he did not?'

  'Who is he?'

  'Oh, Dick, I mean Mr. Angus?'
r />
  Dick bit his lip, and would have replied angrily; but perhaps he lovedthis sister of his more than any other person in the world.

  'Angus, I suppose, noticed nothing,' he answered, in order to save Marypain, 'except that you and Dowton seemed very good friends.'

  Dick knew that this was untrue. He did not remember then that thegood-natured lies live for ever like the others.

  Evening came on before they returned to the river, and Sunbury, nowblazing with fireworks, was shooting flaming arrows at the sky. Thesweep of water at the village was one broad bridge of boats, lighted bytorches and Chinese lanterns of every hue. Stars broke overhead, andfell in showers. It was only possible to creep ahead by pulling in theoars and holding on to the stream of craft of all kinds that movedalong by inches. Rob, who was punting Dick and Mary, had to lay down hispole and adopt the same tactics, but boat and punt were driven apart,and soon tangled hopelessly in different knots.

  'It is nearly eight o'clock,' Dick said, after he had given up lookingfor the rest of the party. 'You must not lose your train, Angus.'

  'I thought you were to stay overnight, Mr. Angus,' Mary said.

  Possibly she meant that had she known he had to return to London, shewould have begun to treat him better earlier in the day, but Rob thoughtshe only wanted to be polite for the last time.

  'I have to be at the _Wire_,' he replied, 'before ten.'

  Mary, who had not much patience with business, and fancied that it couldalways be deferred until next day if one wanted to defer it very much,said, 'Oh!' and then asked, 'Is there not a train that would suit fromSunbury?'

  Rob, blinder now than ever, thought that she wanted to get rid of him.

  'If I could catch the 8.15 here,' he said, 'I would reach Waterloobefore half-past nine.'

  'What do you think?' asked Dick. 'There is no time to lose.'

  Rob waited for Mary to speak, but she said nothing.

  'I had better try it,' he said.

  With difficulty the punt was brought near a landing-stage, and Robjumped out.

  'Good-bye,' he said to Mary.

  'Good-night,' she replied. Her mouth was quivering, but how could heknow?

  'Wait a moment,' Dick exclaimed. 'We might see him off, Mary?' Maryhesitated.

  'The others might wonder what had become of us,' she said.

  'Oh, we need not attempt to look for them in this maze,' her brotheranswered. 'We shall only meet them again at the _Tawny Owl_.'

  The punt was left in charge of a boatman, and the three set off silentlyfor the station, Mary walking between the two men. They might have beensoldiers guarding a deserter.

  What were Mary's feelings? She did not fully realise as yet that Robthought she was engaged to Dowton. She fancied that he was sulky becausea circumstance of which he knew nothing made her wish to treat SirClement with more than usual consideration; and now she thought thatRob, having brought it on himself, deserved to remain miserable until hesaw that it was entirely his own fault. But she only wanted to be cruelto him now to forgive him for it afterwards.

  Rob had ceased to ask himself if it was possible that she had notpromised to be Dowton's wife. His anger had passed away. Her tenderheart, he thought, made her wish to be good to him--for the last time.

  As for Dick, he read the thoughts of both, and inwardly called himself avillain for not reading them out aloud. Yet by his merely remainingsilent these two lovers would probably never meet again, and was notthat what would be best for Mary?

  Rob leant out of the carriage window to say good-bye, and Dick, ill atease, turned his back on the train. It had been a hard day for Mary,and, as Rob pressed her hand warmly, a film came over her eyes. Rob sawit, and still he thought that she was only sorry for him. There are farbetter and nobler things than loving a woman and getting her, but Robwanted Mary to know, by the last look he gave her, that so long as itmeant her happiness his misery was only an unusual form of joy.