The next morning dawned propitious, and Vane, as he drove his two seater through the park to Ashley Gardens, sang to himself under his breath. He resolutely shut his eyes to the hurrying streams of khaki and blue and black passing in and out of huts and Government buildings. They simply did not exist; they were an hallucination, and if persisted in might frighten the mascot.
Joan was waiting for him when he drove up at half-past nine, with Binks sitting importantly on the seat beside him.
"Get right in, lady," cried Vane, "and we'll be on to the Land of the Pixies. But, for the love of Mike, don't put anything on Binks's adversary in the hood. He hasn't had his proper morning battle yet, and one squeak will precipitate a catastrophe."
Never had he seen Joan looking so charming. Of course she was in grey -that was in the nature of a certainty on such an occasion, but she might have been in sackcloth for all the attention Vane paid to her clothes. It was her face that held him, with the glow of perfect health on her cheeks, and the soft light of utter happiness in her eyes. She was pretty--always; but with a sudden catch of his breath Vane told himself that this morning she was the loveliest thing he had ever seen.
"I've got the cage, Derek," she said, "and the beautifullest bone for Binks that he's ever thought of. . . ."
"You dear," answered Vane, and for a moment their eyes met. "You absolute dear. . . ." Then with a quick change of tone he laughed. "Jump in, grey girl--and avaunt all seriousness. Do you mind having Binks on your lap?"
"Do I mind?" she answered reproachfully. "Did you hear that, Binkie? He's insulting you."
But Binks was claiming his share of the Blue Bird and refused to take offence. He just opened one brown eye and looked at her, and then he went peacefully to sleep again. He rather liked this new acquisition to the family. . . .
And so began the great day. They didn't go far from the hotel; just under the old bridge and up a little way towards Sonning lock, where the river forks, and the trees grow down to the water's edge. To every man whose steps lead him on to the Long Trail, there is some spot in this island of ours the vision of which comes back to him when the day's work is done and he lies a-dreaming of Home. To some it may be the hills in the Highlands with the wonderful purple mist over them growing black as the sun sinks lower and lower; to others a little golden-sanded beach with the red sandstone cliffs of Devon rising sheer around it, and the tiny waves rippling softly through the drowsy morning. It is not always thus: sometimes the vision shows them a heaving grey sea hurling itself sullenly on a rock-bound coast; a grey sky, and driving rain which stings their faces as they stand on the cliffs above the little cove, looking out into the lands beyond the water, where the strange roads go down. . . .
And then to some it may be the roar and bustle of Piccadilly that comes back to haunt them in their exile--the theatre, the music and the lights, the sound of women's skirts; or the rolling Downs of Sussex with the white chalk quarries and great cockchafers booming past them through the dusk.
To each and everyone there is one spot hallowed by special memory, and that spot claims pride of place in day dreams. But when the mind rambles on, and the lumber-room of the past is open--to all who have tasted of its peaceful spell there comes the thought of The River. Spell it with Capitals; there is only one. Whether it be Bourne End with its broad reach and the sailing punts, or the wooded heights by Clieveden; whether it be Boulter's Lock on Ascot Sunday, or the quiet stretch near Goring--there is only one River. Henley, Wargrave, Cookham--it matters not. . . . They all go to form The River. And it's one of them, or some of them, or all of them that brings that faint smile of reminiscence to the wanderer's face as he stirs the fire with his boot.
It's so wonderful to drift--just once in a while. And those of the River always drift when they worship at her shrine. Only people who make money in tinned goods and things, and are in all respects dreadful, go on the River in launches, which smell and offend people. And they are not of the River. . . .
"If," said Joan lazily, "you had suggested paddling to Reading, or punting several miles towards Henley, I should have burst into tears. And yet there are some people who deliberately set out to go somewhere. . . ."
"There are two things which precluded such an insane possibility," he said. "The first is Binks; he likes to run about. And the second is that unless I have a kiss within one second I shall blow up. . . ."
"Of course you've known Binks longer than me, so I suppose I mustn't object to the order of precedence." She looked at him mockingly, then, with a quick, fierce movement, she took his face between her hands. And an intelligent and bewhiskered old water rat regarded the subsequent proceedings with a tolerant eye.
"More of 'em at it, my dear," he told his spouse, in his fastness under a gnarled tree root. "However, there's no objection to the children having a look if it amuses them." He cast a discriminating eye round the larder, and frowned heavily. "Hell! you don't mean to say that we've got that damned ham bone again," he growled. "However, we ought to pick up something when they've finished the exhibition and get down to their lunch. . . ." He thoughtfully pulled his left whisker. "And by the way, my love, tell Jane not to go wandering about this afternoon, even if she is in love. There's an abominable dog of the most dangerous description on the warpath. Let me know when those fools stop."
He composed himself for a nap, and the wash of a passing launch which flopped against the punt outside lulled him to sleep. . . . He was a prosaic old gentleman, that water rat, so his peevishness may be forgiven him. After all, a ham bone is a ham bone and pretty poor at that, and when one has been the father of several hundreds, the romantic side of life pales considerably in the light of the possibilities of lunch.
But up above, in the punt, the fools were busy according to their foolishness, quite unmindful of their disapproving audience. Maybe it is dangerous to try to cheat reality; but success justifies any experiment. And the day was successful beyond their wildest dreams. Binks grubbed about in the bank and incidentally gave the love-sick Jane the fright of her young life; until at last, tired and dirty and happy, he lay down on the grass just above Vane's head, and went on hunting in his dreams. . . .
As for the two chief fools, the day passed as such days have always passed since Time began. And the absolute happiness which comes with the sudden touch of a hand, the quick, unexpected glance, the long, passionate kiss, is not to be put on paper. They talked a little about aimless, intimate things; they were silent a great deal--those wonderful silences which become possible only with perfect understanding. And gradually the shadows lengthened, and the grey water began to grow darker. . . . Sometimes from the old bridge came the noise of a passing car, and once an electric canoe went past them in the main stream, with a gramophone playing on board. The sound of the record came to them clearly over the water--the Barcarolle from "Les Contes d'Hoffmann," and they listened until it died faintly away in the distance.
Then at last, with a great sigh Vane stood up and stretched himself. For a long while he looked down at the girl, and it seemed to her that his face was sad. Without a word he untied the punt, and, still in silence, they paddled slowly back towards the hotel.
It was only as they were drifting under the bridge that he spoke, just one short sentence, in a voice which shook a little.
"My dear," he whispered, "I thank you," and very gently he raised her hand to his lips. . . .
But at dinner he had banished all traces of sadness from his mood. They both bubbled with the spontaneous happiness of two children. Binks, to his intense disgust, had to submit to the indignity of a table napkin tied round his neck, and all the occupants of the hotel thought them mad. Incidentally they were--quite mad, which was just as it should be after such a day. Only when they were leaving did they become sane again for a moment.
"Just one more look at the river, my lady," said Vane to her, "before we start. There's a little path I know of, leading out of the rose garden where one can't be seen, and we've just got to say our good-bye to the water alone."
He led the way and Joan followed with Binks trotting sedately between them. And then with his arm round her waist, and her head on his shoulder, they stood and watched the black water flowing smoothly by.
"I've stuck to the rule, grey girl." Vane's arm tightened round her; "I've said not a word about the future. But to-morrow I am going to come to you; to-morrow you've got to decide."
He felt her shiver slightly against him, and he bent and kissed her passionately. "There can only be one answer," he whispered fiercely. "There shall only be one answer. We're just made for one another. . . ."
But it seemed to both of them that the air had become colder. . . .
"You'll come in, Derek," said Joan as the car drew up in Ashley Gardens. "Come in and have a drink; my aunt would like to see you."
Barely a word had been spoken on the drive home, and as Vane followed her into the flat it struck him that her face seemed a little white.
"Are you feeling cold, dear?" he asked anxiously. "I ought to have taken another rug."
"Not a bit," Joan smiled at him. "Only a little tired. . . . Even the laziest days are sometimes a little exacting!" She laughed softly. "And you're rather an exacting person, you know. . . ."
She led the way into the drawing-room, and Vane was duly introduced to Lady Auldfearn.
"There are some letters for you, Joan," said her aunt. "I see there's one from your father. Perhaps he'll say in that whether he intends coming up to town or not. . . ."
With a murmured apology Joan opened her mail, and Vane stood chatting with the old lady.
"I hope you won't think me rude, Captain Vane," she said after a few commonplaces; "but I have arrived at the age when to remain out of bed for one instant after one wishes to go there strikes me as an act of insanity." She moved towards the door and Vane opened it for her with a laugh. "I hope I shall see you again." She held out her hand, and Vane bent over it.
"It's very good of you, Lady Auldfearn," he answered. "I should like to come and call. . . ."
"You can ask at the door if Joan is in," she continued. "If she isn't, I sha'n't be at all offended if you go away again."
Vane closed the door behind her, and strolled back towards the fireplace. "A woman of great discernment is your aunt, Joan." He turned towards her, and suddenly stood very still. "What is it, my dear? . . . Have you had bad news?"
With a letter crumpled up in her hand she was staring at the floor, and she gave a little, bitter laugh. "Not even one day, Derek; the kindly Fates wouldn't even give us that. . . ."
She looked at the letter once again, and read part of it, while Vane watched her with a hopeless feeling of impending trouble.
"You'd better read it," she said wearily. "It's from Father." She handed it to him, and then pointed to the place. "That bit there. . . . 'So I'm sorry to say, little Joan, it's come at last. I've been hoping against hope that I might be able to pull things through, but it simply can't be done. The less will not contain the greater, and my irreducible minimum expenditure is more than my income. Humanly speaking, as far as one can see, there can be no considerable fall in the cost of living and income tax for many years after the war.' . . ."
Vane's eyes skimmed on over the short, angular writing, picking up a phrase here and there. "Gordon to be considered. . . . It means practical penury at Blandford, comparative affluence if we go. . . .
"If I could lay my hand on a hundred thousand it might pull things through till the country is more or less settled once again; that is if it ever does get settled. If labour goes on as it is at present, I suppose we shall have to be grateful for being allowed to live at all. . . ."
Vane looked at Joan, who was still staring at the floor in front of her, and almost mechanically he returned her the letter. . . .
"You've known this was coming, Joan," he said at last. . . .
"Of course," she answered. "But it doesn't make it any better now it has. One always hopes." She shrugged her shoulders, and looked up at him. "Give me a cigarette, Derek, I don't think I'd have minded quite so much if it hadn't come to-day. . . ."
He held out the match for her, and then with his elbow on the mantelpiece he stood watching her. She seemed inert, lifeless, and the contrast with the laughing, happy girl at dinner hit him like a blow. If only he could help--do something; but a hundred thousand was an absurdity. His total income was only about fifteen hundred a year. And as if to torment him still more there rose before his mind the cold, confident face of Henry Baxter. . . .
"Joan--does it matter so frightfully much giving up Blandford?"
She looked at him for a moment, with a sort of amazement on her face. "My dear," she said, "I simply can't imagine life without Blandford. It's just part of me. . . ."
"But when you marry you wouldn't live there yourself," he argued.
She raised her eyebrows. "Pride of place belongs to women as much as to men," she answered simply. "Why, Derek, don't try to pretend that you don't understand that." She gave a little tired laugh. "Besides, it's Dad--and Gordon. . . ."
"And you'd sacrifice yourself for them," he cried. "Not to keep them from want, don't forget--but to keep them at Blandford!" She made no answer, and after a while he went on. "I said I'd come to-morrow, Joan, and ask you to decide; but this letter alters things a bit, my dear. I guess we've got to have things out now. . . ."
The girl moved restlessly and rested her head on her hand.
"You've said it once, lady; I want to hear you say it again. 'Do you love me?'"
"Yes; I love you," she said without the slightest hesitation.
"And would you marry me if there was no Blandford?"
"To-morrow," she answered simply, "if you wanted it."
With a sudden ungovernable rush of feeling Vane swept her out of the chair into his arms, and she clung to him panting and breathless.
"My dear," he said exultantly, "do you suppose that after that I'd let you go? Not for fifty Blandfords. Don't you understand, my grey girl? You've got your sense of proportion all wrong. You're mine--and nothing else on God's green earth matters."
So for a while they stood there, while he smoothed her hair with hands that trembled a little and murmured incoherent words of love. And then at last they died away, and he fell silent--while she looked at him with tired eyes. The madness was past, and with almost a groan Vane let his arms fall to his side.
"Dear man," she said, "I want you to go; I can't think when you're with me. I've just got to worry this thing out for myself. I don't want you to come and see me, Derek, until I send for you; I don't want you even to write to me. I don't know how long it will take. . . . but I'll let you know, as soon as I know myself."
For a while he argued with her--but it was useless. In the bottom of his heart he knew it would be even as he pleaded and stormed. And, because he recognised what lay behind her decision, he loved her all the more for her refusal. There was a certain sweet wistfulness on her face that tore at his heart, and at last he realised that he was failing her, and failing her badly. It was a monstrous thing from one point of view that such a sacrifice should be possible--but it came to Vane with cynical abruptness that life abounds in monstrous things.
And so, very gently, he kissed her. "It shall be as you say, dear," he said gravely. "But try not to make it too long. . . ."
At the door he stopped and looked back. She was standing as he had left her, staring out into the darkness, and as he paused she turned and looked at him. And her eyes were very bright with unshed tears. . . .
Mechanically he picked up his hat and gloves, and drove back to his rooms. He helped himself to a whisky and soda of such strength that Binks looked at him with an apprehensive eye, and then he laughed.
"Hell, Binks," he remarked savagely--"just Hell!"