The Green Ray/Chapter X
A CROQUET PARTY.
It must be confessed that the brothers were beginning to find the time hang rather heavily on their hands. Things were not going on at all as they would have liked. The visible ennui of their niece; the fancy which she had taken for being so much alone; the little encouragement she gave Mr. Ursiclos, about which, perhaps, that gentleman troubled himself less than they did: all these little incidents contributed to make their stay at Oban anything but agreeable. They could think of no device to break this monotony; in vain they watched the slightest atmospheric changes, and were obliged to console themselves with the hope that when once Miss Campbell's whim had been gratified she would doubtless be more tractable—at least to them.
It had happened that for the last two mornings Helena, more absent than ever, had forgotten to give them their usual morning kiss, which always put them in a good humour for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, the barometer, insensible to the uncles' recriminations, showed not the slightest inclination to predict any immediate change for the better in the weather, and though they tapped it at least ten times a day, the mercury refused to rise one iota. Oh, these barometers!
All at once an idea suddenly occurred to the brothers. On the afternoon of the 11th of August they thought of proposing to their niece a game of croquet to divert her thoughts, if possible, and though Aristobulus must be one of the party, Helena could not refuse to gratify their wishes in giving them this little pleasure.
It must be remarked that the brothers prided themselves on being first-rate players of this game, which, as one knows, is but the old game of “mall,” revived and adapted to the requirements of young ladies.
Now there were at Oban several plots of ground laid out especially for croquet.
If at most sea-side places people are content with very indifferent accommodation, it proves less the requirements of the players than their want of enthusiasm in this time-honoured pastime. Here the plots were not gravel but well kept lawns, watered every evening with watering-engines, and rolled every morning till they were smooth as velvet. Small squares of stone sunk in the ground were made for the hoops, and a narrow trench, a few inches deep, divided the different grounds.
How often the brothers had enviously watched the young people's manœuvres on these well-kept grounds! They were highly pleased when Miss Campbell agreed to their proposal, for they hoped in this way to rouse her from her apathy, and at the same time be at liberty to enjoy their favourite pastime in the midst of a crowd of spectators, for there would be plenty of lookers-on here, as well as at Helensburgh. The vain creatures!
Aristobulus, duly informed, had for once consented to postpone his scientific researches, and at the appointed time reached the place of contest. He pretended to be as much up in theory as in the practice of croquet, and to play as a savant, geometrician, physicist, or mathematician; in a word, by the rule of A+B.
Miss Campbell was obliged to take the young pedant as partner, which did not altogether please her; but how could it have been otherwise? How could she have been cruel enough to separate her uncles and place them in opposition to each other, they who were so united in thought, heart, and mind, and who never played, except together—no, she certainly could not do that!
“Miss Campbell,” began Aristobulus, first thing, “I am most happy to be your partner, and if you will allow me, I will explain to you the determinative cause of the strokes.”
“Mr. Ursiclos,” replied Helena, interrupting him, “we must let my uncles win.”
“Yes. Without seeming to do so.”
“But, Miss Campbell—”
“It will make them so vexed to lose.”
“But—allow me,” persisted Aristobulus. “I understand this game geometrically, and am justly proud of the fact! I have calculated the combination of lines, the geometrical value of the curves, and I think I have some pretensions—”
“I have no other pretension,” interrupted Miss Campbell, “than that of making myself agreeable to my opponents; besides, I warn you, they are first-rate players, and I don't think after all that your science will beat their skill.”
“We shall see by-and-by!” muttered Aristobulus, whom no consideration whatever could have persuaded to allow himself to be voluntarily beaten—not even to please Miss Campbell.
Meanwhile, the box, containing the hoops, mallets, and balls, had been brought and placed on the ground.
The nine hoops were adjusted in the little square flags, and posts driven in at either end of the ground.
“Now let us draw lots!” said Sam.
The marks were placed in a hat, and each player drew one out hap-hazard.
Fate decreed the following colours for the order of the players: a blue mallet and ball to Sam, a red one to Ursiclos, a yellow one to Sib, and a green to Miss Campbell.
“In anticipation of the ray of the same colour,” said she, “this is a good omen.”
It was Sam's turn first, and he started the game after taking a good pinch of snuff with his partner.
It was a sight worth looking at, to see him, with his body not too straight, nor too bent, his head a little on one side, so as to be sure of striking his ball on the right spot, his hands placed one above the other on the mallet, the left above, and the right beneath, the knees slightly bent to counterbalance the force of the blow, the left foot placed alongside the ball, and the right a little behind. A perfect type of the accomplished gentleman croquet-player.
Then raising his mallet, and with it gently describing a semicircle, Sam struck the ball placed eighteen inches from the post, and did not require to make use of the privilege of a second start allowed for the first stroke; the ball, skilfully played, had passed through the first and second hoops, and only just missed the third by coming in contact with the side.
This was a very good beginning, and a murmur of applause ran through the spectators, who were standing looking on from the other side of the boundary-mark.
Aristobulus, in his turn, was less fortunate, through awkwardness, or ill-luck; he was obliged to commence three times before he could send his ball through the first hoop, and then it missed the second.
“It is very probable,” he observed to Miss Campbell, “that the calibre of this ball is not quite exact, and in that case the centre of gravity, placed eccentrically, throws it out of its course—”
“Your turn next, Uncle Sib,” said Miss Campbell, without listening to a word of this scientific explanation.
Sib was worthy of his brother, his ball passed through the first two hoops, and stopped close to Aristobulus's ball, which he made use of to get through the third, after he had roqueted it. Then he again roqueted the young savant, who looked, as much as to say, “only wait a bit!”
Finally, after bringing the two balls close together, he placed his foot on his own, and with a vigorous stroke sent his adversary's ball flying far beyond the boundary.
Aristobulus was obliged to go after his ball; but he did so in a most composed manner, with the air of a philosopher, and then awaited his turn in the attitude of a general, who meditates a decisive blow.
Miss Campbell took her green ball, and skilfully sent it through the first two hoops.
Thus the game went on, while the brothers had decidedly the advantage, and did great havoc among their opponents' balls! They made little signs, and understood each other at a glance, without needing to speak, and finally they were a long way ahead, to the great satisfaction of their niece, but to the infinite disgust of Aristobulus.
Miss Campbell, seeing that she was sufficiently distanced by her uncles, now began to play more seriously, and showed much more skill than her partner, who, however, did not spare her his scientific advice.
“The angle of reflection,” said he, “is equal to the angle of incidence, and that ought to show you the direction the ball will take after being struck; thus you must take advantage of—”
“Why don't you take advantage of it yourself, Mr. Ursiclos?” replied Miss Campbell. “Here, I am three hoops in front of you!”
In fact, Aristobulus remained sadly behind; ten times he had attempted to pass the centre hoop, without succeeding; he then began to complain of its position, and after taking it out and replacing it, he tried his fate once more.
But again fortune was unfavourable. Each time his ball would strike against the sides of the hoop, instead of going through.
Miss Campbell indeed might well have complained of her partner. She played very well, and deserved the compliments which her uncles did not spare. Nothing could have been more charming than to see her thoroughly enjoying the game, so well adapted for the display of feminine graces, her right foot half raised, in order to hold her ball when she was croqueting another, her arms coquettishly rounded as she lifted her mallet, the animation of her pretty face, and the graceful sway of her figure, made a most fascinating picture! and yet Aristobulus saw nothing of it.
It must be owned that the position of the game enraged the young savant; in fact, the brothers were now so far ahead that it would have been difficult to overtake them; and yet the chances in croquet are so unexpected that the game is never lost until it is won.
Such was the unequal position of affairs, when a ludicrous incident occurred.
Aristobulus at last found an opportunity to croquet Uncle Sam's ball, which had just repassed the central hoop, before which he himself was obstinately detained.
With evident spite, although he endeavoured to appear calm to the eyes of the spectators, he now determined to make a master-stroke, and retaliate on his opponent, by sending him beyond the boundary-line. Placing his ball close to Uncle Sam's he took pains to see that it touched, smoothing the grass down with the greatest care, then placing his left foot upon it, and lifting his mallet as high as possible, to give full force to the blow, he brought it sharply down.
A cry escaped him! A howl of pain! The mallet had struck not the ball, but the foot of the unlucky player, and there he was hopping on one leg, and uttering groans, very natural no doubt, but a trifle ludicrous.
The brothers ran up to him. Fortunately, as the leather of the boot had deadened the force of the blow, the contusion was not serious. But Aristobulus thought proper thus to account for his misadventure,—
“The radius, represented by the mallet,” said he, with a learned air, though unable to repress a grimace, “described a circle concentric to that which should have just touched the surface of the ground, because that radius was a little too short. Hence this blow—”
“Well, sir, shall we give up the game?” asked Miss Campbell.
“Give up the game!” exclaimed Aristobulus. “Confess ourselves beaten? Never! Judging from the formula of the calculation of probabilities, it will yet be found that—”
“Just so, let us continue,” abruptly replied Miss Campbell.
But all the formulas of the calculation of probabilities would have given but little chance to the opponents of the two brothers. Already Sam was a “rover,” that is to say, his ball having gone through all the hoops, he had struck the post, and had now but to help his partner by croqueting and roqueting any ball that he pleased.
In fact, a few more strokes definitely decided the game, and the brothers triumphed, but modestly as became conquerors. As to Aristobulus, notwithstanding his pretensions, he had not even succeeded in getting through the central hoop.
No doubt Miss Campbell wanted to appear more annoyed than she really was, and giving her ball a vigorous blow, she sent it flying, without heed as to its direction.
The ball shot right out of their plot towards the sea, rebounded on a pebble, and as Aristobulus would have said, its weight, multiplied by the square of its assistant velocity, carried it right out of the grounds.
A young artist was there sitting before his easel, making a sketch of the sea; the ball struck full on his canvas, smeared its green colour, with all the tints on the pallet, which it grazed in passing, and overturned the easel.
The artist turned round, and calmly remarked,—
“It is usual to give notice before beginning a bombardment. It appears we are not in safety here!”
Miss Campbell, having a presentiment of this accident before it occurred, ran towards the boundary-line.
“Oh! sir,” said she, addressing the artist, “please excuse my awkwardness!”
The young man rose and smilingly bowed to the beautiful girl, who blushed deeply as she made her apologies.
It was the hero of the Gulf of Coryvrechan!