A Safety Match/Chapter 12

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"Stiffy," bellowed the new curate ferociously, "what the—I mean, why on earth can't you keep that right foot steady? You edge off to leg every time. If you get a straight ball, stand up to it! If you get a leg-ball, turn round and have a slap at it! But for Heaven's sake don't go running away! Especially from things like pats of butter!"

"Awfully sorry, Mr Blunt!" gasped Stiffy abjectly, as another pat of butter sang past his ear. "It's the rotten way I've been brought up! I've never had any decent coaching before. Ough!. . . No, it didn't hurt a bit, really! I shall be all right in a minute." He hopped round in a constricted circle, apologetically caressing his stomach.

They were in the paddock behind the Rectory orchard. The Reverend Godfrey Blunt, a ruddy young man of cheerful countenance and ingenuous disposition, had rolled out an extremely fiery wicket; and within the encompassing net—Daphne's last birthday present—Stephen Blasius Vereker, impaled frog-wise upon the handle of his bat, and divided between a blind instinct of self-preservation and a desire not to appear ungrateful for favours received, was frantically endeavouring to dodge the deliveries of the church militant as they bumped past his head and ricochetted off his ribs.

"That's better," said Mr Blunt, as his pupil succeeded for the first time in arresting the course of a fast long-hop with his bat instead of his person. "But don't play back to yorkers."

"All right!" said Stiffy dutifully. "I didn't know," he added in all sincerity, "that it was a yorker, or I wouldn't have done it. Oh, I say, well bowled! I don't think anybody could have stopped that one. It never touched the ground at all!"

Stiffy turned round and surveyed his prostrate wickets admiringly. He was an encouraging person to bowl to.

"No, it was a pretty hot one," admitted the curate modestly. "I think I shall have to be going now," he added, mopping his brow. "Parish work, and a sermon to write, worse luck! I think I have just time for a short knock, though. Bowl away, Stiffy!"

He took his stand at the wicket, and after three blind and characteristic swipes succeeded in lifting a half-volley of Stiffy's into the adjacent orchard. When the bowler, deeply gratified with a performance of which he felt himself to be an unworthy but necessary adjunct, returned ten minutes later from a successful search for the ball, he found his hero hastily donning the old tweed jacket and speckled straw hat which he kept for wear with his cricket flannels.

"Hallo! Off?" cried Stiffy regretfully.

"Yes; I'm afraid so," replied Mr Blunt. He was gazing anxiously through a gap in the hedge which commanded the Rectory garden-gate. "This is my busy day. So long, old man!"

He vaulted the fence, and set off down the road at a vigorous and businesslike trot. But after a hundred yards or so he halted, and looked round him with an air which can only be described as furtive. Before him the road, white and dusty, continued officiously on its way to the village and duty. Along the right-hand side thereof ran a neat rail fence, skirting the confines of Tinkler's Den. The landscape appeared deserted. All nature drowsed in the hot afternoon sun.

Mr Blunt, who was a muscular young Christian, took a running jump of some four feet six, cleared the topmost rail, and landed neatly on the grassy slope which ran down towards the Den.

"Now then, Sunny Jim!" remarked a reproving voice above his head, "pas si beaucoup de cela!"

However sound our nervous systems may be, we are all of us liable to be startled at times. Mr Blunt was undoubtedly startled on the occasion, and being young and only very recently ordained, signified the same in the usual manner.

When he looked up into the tree where Nicky was reclining, that virtuous damsel's fingers were in her ears.

"Mr Blunt," she remarked, "I am both surprised and shocked."

"Veronica Vereker," replied Mr Blunt, turning and shaking his fist as he retreated down the slope towards Tinkler's Den, "next time I get hold of you I will wring your little neck!"

Miss Veronica Vereker kissed the tips of her fingers to him.

"We will now join," she proclaimed, in a voice surprisingly reminiscent of the throaty tenor which Mr Blunt reserved for his ecclesiastical performances, "in singing hymn number two hundred and thirty-three; during which those who desire to leave the church are recommended to do so, as it is my—turn—to—preach—the—sermon!"

But by this time the foe, running rapidly, was out of earshot.

Half-an-hour later Stiffy, who was a gregarious animal, went in search of his younger sister, whom he discovered, recently returned from her sylvan skirmish with the curate, laboriously climbing into a hammock in the orchard.

"Nicky, will you come and play cricket?" he asked politely.

"I suppose that means will I come and bowl to you?" replied Nicky.

"No. You can bat if you like."

"Well, I won't do either," said Nicky agreeably.

"What shall we do, then?" pursued Stiffy, with unimpaired bonhomie.

"Personally, I am going to remain in this hammock," replied the lady. "I recommend you, dear, to go and put your head in a bucket. Good-afternoon! Sorry you can't stop."

"I wonder if Cilly would play," mused Stiffy.

"Cilly? I don't think! She is gloating over her clothes in her bedroom. If you and I, my lad," continued Veronica reflectively, "were going to be presented at Court next week, I wonder if we should make such unholy shows of ourselves for days beforehand."

"I know her boxes are all packed," pursued Stiffy hopefully, "because I went and sat on the lids myself after lunch. Perhaps she will come out for half-an-hour before tea. Dad and Tony won't be back from Tilney till seven, so they are no good."

"Well, run along, little man," said Nicky, closing her eyes. "I'm fed up with you."

Stiffy departed obediently, and for ten minutes his younger sister reclined in her hammock, her sinful little soul purged for the moment of evil intent against any man. When next she opened her eyes Stiffy was standing disconsolately before her.

"Go away," said Nicky faintly. "We have no empty bottles or rabbit-skins at present. If you call round about Monday we shall be emptying the dustbin—"

"Cilly's not there," said Stiffy. "Keziah thinks she has gone out for a walk. She saw her strolling down towards the Den half an hour ago."

"The Den?" Nicky's eyes suddenly unclosed to their full radius. "My che-ild! So that's the game! That was why the pale young curate was jumping fences. Ha-ha! Stiffy, would you like some fun?"

Stiffy, mystified but docile, assented.

"We are going," announced Nicky, rolling gracefully out of the hammock, "to stalk a brace of true lovers."

"What—Mr Blunt and Cilly? Do you mean—? Are they really keen on each other?" inquired the unobservant male amazedly.

"Are they? My lad, it has been written all over them for weeks! I'm not certain, though," continued the experienced Nicky, "that the poor dears are aware of it themselves yet. But to-day is Cilly's last for months, so—"

"Do you mean they are down in the Den together?" demanded Stiffy.

"I do."

"But—Mr Blunt has gone off to do parish work. He told me so himself."

"Parish work my foot!" commented Nicky simply. "Come on! Let's go and mark down their trail! We can pretend to be Red Indians, if you like," she added speciously.

But the sportsmanlike Stiffy hung back.

"Let's play cricket instead," he said hesitatingly.

"Not me! Come on!"

"Nicky," said Stiffy, searching his hand, so to speak, for trumps, "Preston is killing a pig this afternoon at four o'clock. I've just remembered. He promised not to begin till I came. We shall just be in time. Hurry up!"

"I am going," said Nicky firmly, "to stalk that couple. Are you coming?"

"No. It's not playing the game," said Stiffy bravely.

Nicky, uneasily conscious that he spoke the truth, smiled witheringly.

"All right, milksop!" she said. "I shall go by myself. You can go and hold the pig's head."

So they departed on their several errands.

Meanwhile Cilly and the curate sat side by side beneath a gnarled and venerable oak in Tinkler's Den.

". . . Then your name is called out," continued Cilly raptly, "and you give one last squiggle to your train and go forward and curtsey—to all the Royalties in turn, I think, but I'm not quite sure about that part yet—and then you pass along out of the way, and somebody picks up your train and throws it over your shoulder, and you find yourself in another room, and it's all over. Won't it be heavenly?"

"Splendid!" replied Mr Blunt, without enthusiasm.

"After that," continued Cilly, "my sister is going to take me simply everywhere. And I am to meet lots of nice people. It's too late for Henley and Ascot and that sort of thing this summer, but I am to have them all next year. Later on, we are going to Scotland. I'm not at all a lucky girl, am I?"

It was one of those questions to which, despite its form, an experienced Latin grammarian would have unhesitatingly prefixed the particle nonne. But the Reverend Godfrey Blunt merely replied in a hollow voice: "What price me?"

Cilly, startled, turned and regarded his hot but honest face, and then lowered her gaze hastily to the region of her own toes.

The Reverend Godfrey was a fine upstanding young man, with merry grey eyes; and there was a cheerful and boisterous bonhomie about his conversation which the exigencies of his calling had not yet intoned out of him. No one had ever considered him brilliant, for his strength lay in character rather than intellect. He was a perfect specimen of that unromantic but priceless type with which our public schools and universities never fail to meet the insatiable demands of a voracious Empire. The assistant commissioner, the company officer, the junior-form master, the slum curate—these are they that propel the ship of State. Up above upon the quarter-deck, looking portentously wise and occasionally quarrelling for the possession of the helm, you may behold their superiors—the Cabinet Minister, the Prelate, the Generalissimo. But our friends remain below the water-line, unheeded, uncredited, and see to it that the wheels go round. They expect no thanks, and they are not disappointed. The ship goes forward, and that is all they care about.

The Reverend Godfrey Blunt was one of this nameless host. At school he had scraped into the Sixth by a hair's-breadth; at the University he had secured a degree of purely nominal value. He had been an unheroic member of his House eleven; thereafter he had excoriated his person uncomplainingly and unsuccessfully upon a fixed seat for the space of three years, not because he expected to make bumps or obtain his Blue, but because his College second crew had need of him. Since then he had worked for five years in a parish in Bermondsey, at a stipend of one hundred pounds a-year; and only the doctor's ultimatum had prevailed on him to try country work for a change. His spelling was shaky, his theology would have made Pusey turn in his grave, and his sermons would have bored his own mother. But he was a man.

Cilly, whom we left bashfully contemplating her shoe-buckles under an oak-tree, was conscious of a new, sudden, and disturbing thrill. Young girls are said seldom to reflect and never to reason. They have no need. They have methods of their own of arriving at the root of the matter. Cilly realised in a flash that if a proper man was the object of her proposed journey through the great and enticing world before her, she need never set out at all. Something answering to that description was sitting beside her, sighing like a furnace. Her face flamed.

"What did you say?" she inquired unsteadily.

"I said 'What price me?'" reiterated the curate mournfully.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean"——he spoke hesitatingly, like a man picking his words from an overwhelming crowd of applicants—"well, I mean this. You and I have seen a lot of each other since I came here. You have been awfully good to me, and I have got into the way of bringing you my little troubles, and turning to you generally if I felt dismal or humpy. (There are more joyful spots, you know, to spend one's leisure hours in than Mrs Tice's First Floor Front.) And now—now you are going away from me, to meet all sorts of attractive people and have the time of your life. You will have a fearful lot of attention paid to you. Nine out of ten men you meet will fall in love with you—"

"Oh! nonsense!" said Cilly feebly.

"But I know it," persisted Blunt. "I simply can't conceive any man being able to do anything else. Do you know"—the words stuck in his throat for a moment and then came with a rush—"do you know that you are the most adorable girl on God's earth? I love you! I love you! There—I've said it! I had meant to say a lot more first—work up to it by degrees, you know—but it has carried me away of its own accord. I love you—dear, dear Cilly!"

There was a long stillness. All nature seemed to be watching with bated breath for the next step. Only above their heads the branches of the oak-tree crackled gently. Cilly's head swam. Something new and tremulous was stirring within her. She closed her eyes, lest the spell should be broken by the sight of some mundane external object. A purely hypothetical fairy prince, composed of equal parts of Peer of the Realm, Life Guardsman, Mr Sandow, Lord Byron, and the Bishop of London, whom she had cherished in the inmost sanctuary of her heart ever since she had reached the age at which a girl begins to dream about young men, suddenly rocked upon his pedestal. Then she opened her eyes again, and contemplated the homely features of the Reverend Godfrey Blunt.

Not that they appeared homely any longer. Never had a man's face undergone such a transformation in so short a time. To her shy eyes he had grown positively handsome. Cilly felt her whole being suddenly drawn towards this goodly youth. The composite paragon enshrined in her heart gave a final lurch and then fell headlong, to lie dismembered and disregarded, Dagon-like, at the foot of his own pedestal.

. . . Slowly their hands met, and they gazed upon one another long and rapturously. How long, they did not know. There was no need to take count of time. They seemed to be sitting together all alone on the edge of the universe, with eternity before them. The next step was obvious enough; they both realised what it must be: but they did not hurry. They sat on, this happy pair, waiting for inspiration.

It came—straight from above their heads.

"Kiss her, you fool!" commanded a hoarse and frenzied voice far up the tree.

Crackle! Crash! Bump!

And Nicky, overestimating in her enthusiasm the supporting power of an outlying branch, tumbled, headlong but undamaged, a medley of arms and legs and blue pinafore, right at their very feet.

A few hours later Daphne, preceded by a rather incoherent telegram, drove up to the Rectory in the station fly.

She was met at the door by Cilly, and the two, as if by one impulse, fell into each other's arms.

"Daphne, dear Daph," murmured the impetuous Cilly, "I am the happiest girl in all the world."

"And I," said Daphne simply, "am the most miserable."