Lovers on an Island
LOVERS ON AN ISLAND.
By BARRY PAIN.
HOW sweet it would be," said Isobel, "to remain here for ever, in this lovely little island in the middle of the big lovely lake, just you and I, Willy!
"Table d'hôte at 7.30," said William gloomily, "and we've got to get back for it. And then we shan't get another moment alone together till after nine. And even then we shan't, unless we wander off into the garden together, and the last time we did that we were accused of selfishness. We're all right, but I can't make out what the rest of the world was made for."
Truly it was an enchanting island, with trees where the herons built, and grey, moss-grown boulders where shy, rare lizards sunned themselves, and stretches of bracken. Here for a brief hour they had been quite out of the world. But it was five o'clock, and it would take them nearly two hours to get back to hateful civilisation, and hateful civilisation demanded them acidly and peremptorily.
"Listen," said Isobel, "to the little wavelets talking nonsense ail round the coast—making love to the silence. Oh! this fragment of pure, sequestered Nature—Nature as sweet as she always is when she is left to herself!"
"And we're going back," said William, "to that inferior pot-house masquerading as a first-class hotel under the guidance of an intelligent Swiss. Back to the sole that is really plaice, and to the crême de volaille with a quadrupedal origin, and to the lamb that is frozen and the peas that are tinned. And at the next table will be the Reverend Father with the indigestion, and the mature lady with the conversation, and the satisfied American who tells us what he will do with this country when he has bought it."
"I don't like the people," said Isobel. "And mamma doesn't like them, either. And the dinner isn't nearly as good as it looks and sounds. But all the same, you think too much about food. You're too material."
"I'm particularly spiritual by nature," said William modestly. "But at dinner food is rather thrust on your attention, and I have an honest man's hatred of imitations. Otherwise my wants are few. A loaf of bread, a jug—or just the ordinary bottle—of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness, and nobody need trouble about me further; in fact, I wouldn't insist on the bread. It's—— Good heavens!"
They had just come round the corner to the landing-stage, and in one flash of an eye William had realised that the boat in which he had rowed Isobel across to the island was no longer there.
"The boat's got away!" cried Isobel in anguish.
"So I was observing, and I'm afraid it's my fault. I can't make it out, for the knot that I tied can't slip or go wrong. The harder the boat pulled, the tighter the knot would get. If there were—or had been—anyone on the island besides ourselves, I should say that someone had been having a little game with us."
"Oh, Willy! I've remembered. Can you forgive me?"
"Not at present, because I've got nothing to forgive. But if you'll provide the material——"
"It was my fault—all my fault. It was while you were struggling with our fire to boil the kettle. I slipped back to the boat to get my parasol, and it was right at the other end of the boat; and I untied it to pull it round, and then I tied it up again; and I suppose that was it."
"That's all right," said William. "But what will everybody think? And what will they do?"
"Well, with our customary secretiveness, we never said where we were going. They know that we took the tea-basket and a rug." He had been carrying these, and he now put them down. "And that's all they know. We might be up one of the many noble mountains that give this desolate country its attraction for the tourist. We might be over at the ruined abbey. The lake is three miles away from the hotel, and may never occur to them at all. About half-past eight or nine they will begin search-partying, but they won't have the faintest idea where to search. If we had hired the boat, the man who let it could have been depended upon to rescue us. But this is Jefferson's private boat, which he gave me the use of, and I doubt very much if anybody saw us unlock the boat-house and get it out. If we'd been trying to steal the boat, we should have had some of his men round us in no time. So, taking one consideration with another, we shall certainly be rescued, but quite possibly it won't be till to-morrow morning."
"It's perfectly awful. But I'm quite sure someone will come for us long before that. Don't look so downhearted, Willy; it will only mean that your dear dinner will be put off for an hour or two. I don't mind it a bit. It's rather adventurous and romantic."
"Yes, but there's just a chance that it will be beastly uncomfortable for you, if we have to stop here all night. That's what I don't like."
"We aren't going to stop here. Some other boat will come over."
"Bit late in the day for it."
"Well, something's certain to happen. It always does on desert islands. Now, what ought we to do?"
"I'm told there are a lot of queer crosscurrents in the lake, and it's quite possible our boat may have drifted in again. We'll just go round the island and look. Or I'll go alone, if you're tired."
"Not a bit. I'll go one way and you'll go the other, and we'll meet. Then we shall do it in half the time."
The entire circuit of the island could be made in twenty minutes, and they had in all probability many vacant hours before them. But there is a joy in saving time even when it is a very little time and you have no particular use for it. Old gentlemen of an obese habit will run to catch a train on the Underground when there is another in three minutes, and then there are inquests.
So William and Isobel encircled the island. But they found no trace whatever of their boat. Isobel said she had been quite sure from the start that that would never do.
"And now," she said, "I know what."
"Well. What is it?"
"We must try smoke signals. They're often used by the natives, you know."
"Natives of where?"
"How should I know? Just plain natives you get in travel-books."
"I see," said William gravely. And then they set to work collecting bracken for the smoke-signal. One of Jefferson's gardeners was to see it, answer it, and start to the rescue at once. Of that Isobel felt quite sure. In the meantime, her word "travel-books" had started her on a train of thought as she gathered the bracken.
"Willy, dearest," she said suddenly, "we ought to have a barrel of pickled pork, very little injured by the sea-water. People always have that on desert islands."
"They do," said William. "It is washed up from the wreck. They've lost their parents in the wreck, but they don't think nearly so much about losing their parents as about finding that barrel. However, it's no good complaining. We've got no pickled pork, and no sea-water to damage it with."
"We've got no wreck," said Isobel—"that's the initial mistake. When you're cast up on a desert island, you have the wrecked vessel fixed firmly on the adjacent coral reef. That is so in the story-books, and it comes in very usefully, for that wreck does not stop at pickled pork. Anything you want, from a steam-crane to a tooth-pick, is washed out of the captain's cabin and delivered safely on the beach at your feet next morning."
"Yes, I know that wreck. It's a gratis, with the tide as the vans."
"I don't know that I don't miss the patent desert island's animals even more. You know those animals? They're wild, but not so very wild. When George, or any of the desert-island family, gets hold of them, they become rapidly docile. George finds a hippopotamus and treats it kindly. Next day it is still a little shy; but by the end of the week George is driving it tandem in a curricle (washed up from the wreck, of course), with an iguana as leader."
"What's an iguana?"
"Haven't the faintest idea; but I'm pretty certain I've come across it in the desert-island stories. We've got nothing of the kind here. We haven't even got the deep, dark forest of eucalyptus and opodeldoc, with the monkeys swinging in it, all packed with bread-fruit, guava jelly, and ripe bananas. Oh! this is nothing of a desert island, and I don't care how soon we get out of it!"
"Varia et mutabilis semper! An hour ago you didn't care how long we stopped here."
"Yes," said Isobel; "but there's a difference between stopping because you want to atop and stopping because you can't get away. Here, we must have got enough bracken for our fire by now."
William struck a match. The dry fern blazed freely, and a column of smoke went up on the still air. But no answering signal came from the mainland, and gradually they realised that their fire had not been seen, or had not been understood. Isobel strained her eyes to see a boat being rowed towards them, but no boat came.
"This begins to be a nuisance," she said impatiently. "It's nearly seven, and I am simply faint with hunger and fatigue."
"What a fool I was to let you tire yourself with gathering that bracken!" said William. "However, I'll bring up the rug and the tea-basket, and we must do the best we can. Very likely your smoke-signal was seen, and they're on the way to ns by now."
"On the way to us? They'd have been here by this time. You said yourself we shouldn't get off before to-morrow, and I don't for a moment suppose we shall get off then. It gets frightfully cold at night, too. Never mind; it can't be helped. It was silly of me to let you arrange things, that's all."
Decidedly fatigue, hunger, and disappointment were doing deadly work with Isobel's temper.
"Luckily," said William, as he unscrewed the stopper of the bottle, "When one goes on a tea-picnic, one always takes far too much milk. That milk will be very useful now. Milk is a food, you know; one doesn't starve when one has milk."
"Who says that milk is a food?"
"The doctors say so."
"Well, I say milk is not a food. Milk's a drink. You drink it; you don't eat it. How can it be a food?"
William—good-natured and pusillanimous—said that the doctors were very likely wrong; doctors often were.
"And there's only about a teacupful of it," said Isobel.
"I never touch milk myself, except in tea," lied William. "It makes me ill. Lots of men are like that."
"I'm almost certain I've seen you drink it."
"Never. Unfortunately, we used all the tea at tea-time. In fact, we seem to have used everything. There are a few biscuits, and—ah! any amount of butter."
"How many biscuits will there be each?"
"Oh! I'm not going to spoil my dinner by eating anything now."
"There isn't going to be any dinner," said Isobel in tones of the deepest melancholy.
"We shan't get it for two or three hours, perhaps, but I'm certain we shall get it ultimately. We'll get off this accursed island somehow. Cheer up, Isie!"
Isobel did her best to smile faintly. She let herself be persuaded into drinking all the milk and eating all the biscuits, and her conscience smote her. She was a very good girl, and as a rule her conscience had little to do; so on the rare occasions when her conscience did get to work, it did not always work in the most approved manner. Here, for instance, it urged her to prove that she was quite right,
"I'm quite sure," she said, "that you think I'm in a horribly bad temper, Willy."
William laughed. "Not a bit of it. Naturally, this isn't much fun for you."
"I wasn't thinking of myself," said Isobel, with, I fear, a touch of the Christian martyr in her voice. "I was thinking about poor mamma and the others. How terribly anxious they'll be! Have you thought of that?"
"Yes; but they won't have begun to be anxious yet. They won't begin to be really troubled before nine. We've been late for dinner before, sometimes, you know."
"Yes, and they've talked to us about it. And we promised that we would never be late again."
"Well, it's not really our fault this time."
"We know that, of course, and our own people will know it, too, and believe it. But will the rest of the people in the hotel believe it, or will they believe we did it on purpose? It's horrible! It's compromising!"
"We've been engaged a year. We are to be married next month."
"That doesn't stop people's tongues."
"There are lots of ways of stopping people's tongues," said William darkly.
By this time Isobel had quite justified herself in her own mind, and believed that she had a legitimate cause for grievance.
"It's really rather too bad," she said. "Naturally, I leave you to manage everything. One always leaves it to the man. Then you bring me to this horrible place, and then you go and lose the boat. And you don't seem to have the faintest idea what to do to get us away again. An emergency like this is a test, and we really don't come out of it very well. It destroys one's confidence. One doesn't feel that one can depend on you to get one through. You can only just stand there and talk."
This was severe on the island. It had been a "fragment of pure, sequestered Nature"; it was now a "horrible place." It was severe on William, too; for, after all, it was Isobel, and not he, who had lost the boat; and if he did nothing, it was chiefly because there was nothing to do. Isobel was on the verge of tears and at her consummate worst.
"I'm most awfully sorry," said William. "I know how trying it must be for you. I'll go and get the stuff together for another fire; it will show up better when it is dark."
"You can try it, of course," said Isobel resignedly.
William went, and at that moment his luck turned right round. At first he could hardly believe his eyes. There was the boat, brought back by the queer currents of the lake, drifting quietly along, as if it had never done anything wrong in its life.
"Isie!" he called. "It's ail right. Come along home."
She came running towards him. He pointed out the boat.
"Return of the wanderer," he said.
"Yes, but it's drifting away from us. And even now it's quite out of reach."
"I'm prepared to bet one hundred pounds to one hayseed that it is not out of my reach," said William. "Please hold my coat for a minute."
He waded the first part of the way, and swam the rest, and he brought back the boat. As he stood on the shore, panting and wringing the water from his clothes as well as he could, Isobel's conscience smote her once more, and by this time it had got into thorough working order and smote hard and truly.
"Willy! You're soaked, and you'll simply catch your death of cold."
"Not I. Rowing will keep me warm. If you'll just catch hold here, I'll fetch the basket and rug."
When he came back, he found her repeating with all the solemnity of a Litany: "I am a beast. I am a pig. I won't forgive myself. I'll never, never, never forgive myself."
"Hul—lo!" he exclaimed. "What's all the trouble?"
"I'm ashamed of myself. I'm very sorry. You may give me up altogether if you like. It would only serve me right."
"Afraid I can't. Not got time, for one thing. Tumble in, sweetheart. All right? Off we go, then!"
As he pulled hard away from the island, she continued: "It was simply splendid, the way you brought that boat in. I never saw anything like it. It was magnificent. And to think that you did it all for the stupid, spiteful, cowardly she-cat that I am!"
"I say, don't go on like that," said William, "or you'll make me laugh. And I can't laugh and pull at the same time. To think that I sneered at the intelligent Swiss who runs our hotel! Shan't I fly at his warmed-up garbages as soon as I get a chance?"
"I do wish you hadn't gone into the water like that."
"It won't do me any harm, and it will do us collectively good. It proves that we really did lose the boat."
"You're an angel!"
And Luck, having now decided to take the lovers in hand, did the thing thoroughly well. They tucked the boat up in its little home by the edge of the lake and took the path up into the main road; and they had hardly reached the road before they heard behind them the sound of a quick-trotting horse.
"That's Vera!" exclaimed William. "Must be." The horse and cart swung round the corner into sight. "By Jove! it is! Hi, there! Tom!"
Vera was a fast mare belonging to the proprietor. William always maintained that the intelligent Swiss must have stolen her, on the grounds that the Swiss would never have bought so good an animal, and nobody would have been fool enough to give her to him.
The man pulled up, and William helped Isobel up into the cart. "You'll be home in a quarter of an hour," he said.
"But aren't you coming, too?"
"Too wet; I'll run for it. I shan't be long after you."
On his arrival he found that she had already established for him a serviceable reputation as a hero and a genius. As the utmost of his exploit was that he had swum a few yards in his clothes and recognised a horse, he felt that he had obtained the reputation at a very moderate cost.
The hotel dinner was over, but the intelligent Swiss, susceptible to the beauty of Isobel and the long purse of her father, did wonders. They dined well, under the admiring supervision of Isobel's family. The Swiss produced with an air of mystery a very special bottle. "No," he said to William, "zat is not on ze vine list. It is not filth, zat. I haf drunk him myself."
And Isobel explained to her mother that if you were in a railway collision, a colliery explosion, a shipwreck, and an earthquake simultaneously, you were quite all right so long as you had William with you. "If I'd been with anybody else, I should have been sitting on that darling little island without any dinner at this moment."
The length of the swim increased and multiplied exceedingly. By the end of dinner it was represented that William had swum half-way across the lake. She also proved that but for William, there would have been no cart to take her swiftly home from the lake. I do not know how she did this, because the cart would have overtaken her in any case, and even if she had not recognised the horse, the man Tom would certainly have recognised her and pulled up. So I do not know how she did it; but she did it, and with such enthusiasm as to convince all who heard her, with the solitary exception of William himself. He protested frequently and firmly, until he found that he was merely earning another reputation for excessive modesty. Then he gave up.
But it was pleasant to sun himself in his lady's favour once more.
Long after Isobel had gone to bed, William sat in the hotel smoking-room, consuming many cigarettes and listening to the converse of an aged angler.
Now, the angler was a cynic, which is not wonderful. While the angler is not catching fish—that is, for by far the greater part of the time that he is trying to catch them—he has leisure for meditation, and his meditations are likely to take a bitter tone. But I do not know why all cynics are extremely liable to say things about women; there seems to be no reason for it.
The aged angler's principal opponent was the dyspeptic clergyman whom William and Isobel had dignified by the name of the Reverend Father. But to-night the Reverend Father had gone to bed early in a state of harassing doubt as to whether it had been wise of him to take a second helping of ice pudding. Consequently, the aged angler had room to spread himself, and he talked on the subject of women.
"You will never find in any woman," he cried dictatorially, "a really perfect sense of truth and justice. Even the best of them have not got it. The best woman in the world will blame her husband for what is really rank bad luck and not his fault in the very least. If the train in which they are travelling breaks down, and she has a few hours to wait, she always feels and acts as if her husband was in some way responsible."
"But then," said William, "she also praises and loves her husband for his good luck, for which also he is not responsible. One injustice cancels the other, and they both go out, and so no harm's done."
"You really think that?"
"Then all I can say is that you have no proper sense of justice yourself."
"Very likely," said William. "And I'll bet you the want of it doesn't keep me awake at night. Good-night, everybody."
"Of course," said the aged angler, when William had gone, "we have to take into account that he's very much engaged to be married. Poor chap!"