By Barry Pain
Over the flat fen-country there were white mists rising. It was already growing dusk, but it was not going to be very dark, this summer night. The weeds had been cut, and drifted down-stream in thick masses. A thin, middle-aged man stood by the lock gates, watching an approaching boat. He was dressed in country clothes, but he had not the air of a countryman; he was pale, and had a look of experience. Save for the regular sound of the sculls, everything was quite still. Save for the man at the lock gates and the solitary occupant of the boat, there was no one in sight. It was a wide, flat, desolate scene.
The boat was rather a heavy tub, and the man who was sculling was tired and out of temper. As a rule, he was thought to be a distinctly brilliant and genial young man; but he wanted to get on to Nunnisham, which was five miles beyond the lock, that night, and he had been delayed by the weeds. The gods had given him extraordinarily good looks and many other good things, enough to keep him genial, unless, as on the present occasion, circumstances tried him severely. At the lock he drew into the bank, and hailed the middle-aged man who still stood watching him.
"Hi! what are the weeds like above the lock?"
"Very bad, sir." The answer was given in a serious, respectful voice.
The young man swore gently to himself. "Is there any place near here where I could put up for the night?"
"There is only a public-house, sir. I am the landlord of it—my name is Hill. I could give you a bedroom, a little rough perhaps, but——"
"Good—a bed and some supper—capital! That is the only bit of luck I've had to-day." As he was speaking, the young man picked up a small knapsack which was lying in the stern of the boat and jumped out. He made the boat fast, and joined the landlord on the towing-path.
"It is this way. You will let me carry that for you, sir."
As they walked along, the brilliant young man—his name was Philip Vince—chatted freely. He was taking a holiday up the river, and was to have joined a friend at Nunnisham that night and then gone on with him the day after. He told the landlord all this, and also surmised that Hill was not a native of the fen-country.
"No, sir," was the answer, "I was valet to Sir Charles Sulmont. You have perhaps heard of him."
Philip had never heard of him, but said that he had.
"When Sir Charles died, he left me a little money, and I married a maid who was then in Lady Sulmont's service. I bought this house, with a little assistance from her ladyship, and settled here. I was very young then, and I have been here eighteen years."
Philip gathered from further talk as they went along that Mrs. Hill was dead, and that she had left one child, Jeanne, a girl of seventeen, who lived with her father. When they reached the inn. Hill showed Philip a bedroom—a large, comfortable room, and began to make some apology about supper. They very rarely had any one staying in the house, and there was nothing left but—here Philip interrupted,
"You would be doing me a kindness if you would let me have supper with you and your daughter. I hate solitude. I mean, if your—if Miss Hill wouldn't object."
"If you really wish it, sir, I should be very pleased; so also, I am sure, would Jeanne." Hill was a born valet; he had the manner: if he had lived out of service for a hundred years, he would have been a valet still. When Hill left him, Philip looked round the room, and congratulated himself. Everything was very neat and clean. The landlord was a capital fellow—a little solemn, perhaps, but still a capital fellow. This was far above the accommodation which he had expected.
Just then a light footfall came up the stairs, and Philip caught a snatch of a French song. The song stopped short just before the footfall passed his door. Philip conjectured that this must be the daughter, and that it had been a French maid that Hill had married—hence the name Jeanne and that snatch of song; also that the daughter had been warned of his arrival, and had gone to put on her prettiest dress. All of these conjectures were quite correct. And yet when Jeanne entered the sitting-room, a few minutes afterward, and saw Philip for the first time, she was so startled that she showed it slightly. Philip was also a little surprised, for a different reason, and did not show it at all. He had thought of the possibility that Jeanne might be pretty; and she was a beauty—a brunette, childlike in many ways, but with a woman's eyes. Her voice was good, and her first few words showed that she had had some education.
It took her about ten minutes to get from decided shyness to complete confidence. Philip was feeling far too good-tempered to let any one be shy with him; he made Hill and his daughter talk, and he talked freely himself. He liked the simplicity of everything about him; he had grown tired of formalities in London. He liked cold beef and salad, for he was very hungry, and—yes, above all, he liked Jeanne. What on earth were that face and that manner doing in a riverside inn? She was perfect; she did not apologize too much, did not get flurried, did not have red hands, spoke correctly, laughed charmingly—in a word, was bewitching. Really, he was glad that he had been prevented from going on to Nunnisham. Toward the end of supper, he discovered that she was wearing a white dress with forget-me-nots in it.
The table was cleared by a native servant, who seemed all red cheeks and new boots. Hill went off to superintend the business of the inn. Philip was left alone with Jeanne. She told him to smoke, and he was obedient; he also made her tell him other things.
Yes, she had been to school at Nunnisham—rather too good a school for her, she was afraid; but her mother had wished it. Her mother had taught her French and a little music. Music and drawing were the best things, she thought; but she liked some books. She owned that it was lonely, at the inn. "I am glad you came," she confessed frankly.
"Jeanne," said Philip, "I heard you humming a line or two of 'Jadis' before supper, didn't I? I wish you would sing it to me." She agreed at once, crossing the room to a little cottage piano—rather a worn-out instrument, but still a piano. The melody—plaintive, gentle, childish—of Jeanne's sweet voice, and the sadness of the words, with their quaint, pensive refrain, did not miss their effect.
"Je n'attends plus rien bas;
Bonheur perdu ne revient pas,
Et mon cœur ne demande au ciel
Qu'ųn repos éternel."
He thanked her; he had liked that very much. "Why," he added, "were you startled when you saw me?"
"Because you are a dream come true. I saw your face in a dream last night—as clearly as I see you now. All this time I have been feeling as if I had known you before."
"Really?" he said. He had not quite believed it. "How many things come true! One says things about the shortness of time or the certainty of death so often that they lose all meaning; then when one grows old or lies dying, the platitudes get to have terrible force—they come true."
She was struck by that; she kept her eyes fixed on his, and he went on talking to her. He did not, as the time wore on, always mean quite so much as he said; and she meant much more than she said. That is a common difference between a man and a woman on such occasions. It seemed to her that now for the first time she really lived.
After Jeanne had said good night, Philip had some chat with her father about her.
"I expect that she will be engaged very soon, sir," he said; "a young man called Banks—William Banks—is anxious, and has spoken to me; and she likes him."
"Now, I wonder," thought Philip as he went up-stairs, "why she never even hinted that to me. M'yes, I see."
Next morning after breakfast he went away, taking with him a few forget-me-nots, a pleasant memory, and just the faintest possible feeling of remorse. They all faded.
Jeanne had seemed so quiet and depressed of late that her father, in order to cheer her up, had invited Mr. William Banks to spend the evening.
Mr. Banks was a small shopkeeper in Nunnisham, and considered to be no mean wag by those who knew him. Yet he felt unable to cheer her up. "Supposing we had a bit of a toon, Jenny," he suggested at last.
She was quite docile. She played one thing after another. Suddenly she began "Jadis."
" I don't understand French myself," Mr. Banks remarked, "but the words of a song don't matter." She had never thought much about the words herself before. But now?
"Depuis qu'il a trahi sa foi
Rien n'a plus de charme pour moi."
Her voice faltered a little, but she sang on to the end of the verse;
"Et mon cœur ne demande au ciel
Qu'uu repos éternel."
Yes, the song had "come true." Just there she gave way, and began to cry a little.
A week afterward Mr. Banks announced that his attentions to Miss Hill were at an end.