I sat fishing. I had not caught anything, of course - I rarely do, nor am I fond of fishing in the very smallest degree, but I fished assiduously all the same, because circumstances demanded it.
It had all come about through Lady Warburton, Lisbeth's maternal aunt. Who Lisbeth is you will learn if you trouble to read these veracious narratives - suffice it for the present that she has been an orphan from her youth up, with no living relative save her married sister Julia and her Aunt (with a capital A) - the Lady Warburton aforesaid.
Lady Warburton is small and somewhat bony, with a sharp chin and a sharper nose, and invariably uses lorgnette; also, she is possessed of much worldly goods.
Precisely a week ago Lady Warburton had requested me to call upon her - had regarded me with a curious exactitude through her lorgnette, and gently though firmly (Lady Warburton is always firm) had suggested that Elizabeth, though a dear child, was young and inclined to be a little self-willed. That she (Lady Warburton) was of opinion that Elizabeth had mistaken the friendship which had existed between us so long for something stronger. That although she (Lady Warburton) quite appreciated the fact that one who wrote books, and occasionally a play, was not necessarily immoral - Still I was, of course, a terrible Bohemian, and the air of Bohemia was not calculated to conduce to that degree of matrimonial harmony which she (Lady Warburton) as Elizabeth's Aunt, standing to her in place of a mother, could wish for. That, therefore, under these circumstances my attentions were - etc., etc.
Here I would say in justice to myself that despite the torrent of her eloquence I had at first made some attempt at resistance; but who could hope to contend successfully against a woman possessed of such an indomitable nose and chin, and one, moreover, who could level a pair of lorgnette with such deadly precision? Still, had Lisbeth been beside me things might have been different even then; but she had gone away into the country - so Lady Warburton had informed me. Thus alone and at her mercy, she had succeeded in wringing from me a half promise that I would cease my attentions for the space of six months, "just to give dear Elizabeth time to learn her own heart in regard to the matter."
This was last Monday. On the Wednesday following, as I wandered aimlessly along Piccadilly, at odds with Fortune and myself, but especially with myself, my eye encountered the Duchess of Chelsea.
The Duchess is familiarly known as the "Conversational Brook" from the fact that when once she begins she goes on forever. Hence, being in my then frame of mind, it was with a feeling of rebellion that I obeyed the summons of her parasol and crossed over to the brougham.
"So she's gone away?" was her greeting as I raised my hat - "Lisbeth," she nodded, "I happened to hear something about her, you know."
It is strange, perhaps, but the Duchess generally does "happen to hear" something about everything. "And you actually allowed yourself to be bullied into making that promise - Dick! Dick! I'm ashamed of you."
"How was I to help myself?" I began. "You see - "
"Poor boy !" said the Duchess, patting me affectionately with the handle of her parasol, "it wasn't to be expected, of course. You see, I know her - many, many years ago I was at school with Agatha Warburton."
"But she probably didn't use lorgnettes then, and - "
"Her nose was just as sharp though - 'peaky' I used to call it," nodded the Duchess. "And she has actually sent Lisbeth away - dear child - and to such a horrid, quiet little place, too, where she'll have nobody to talk to but that young Selwyn.
"I beg pardon, Duchess, but - "
"Horace Selwyn, of Selwyn Park - cousin to Lord Selwyn, of Brankesmere. Agatha has been scheming for it a long time, under the rose, you know. Of course, it would be a good match, in a way - wealthy, and all that - but I must say he bores me horribly - so very serious and precise!"
"Really !"I exclaimed, "do you mean to say - "
"I expect she will have them married before they know it - Agatha's dreadfully determined. Her character lies in her nose and chin."
"But Lisbeth is not a child - she has a will of her own, and - "
"True," nodded the Duchess, "but is it a match for Agatha's chin? And then, too, it is rather more than possible that you are become the object of her bitterest scorn by now.
"But, my dear Duchess - "
"Oh, Agatha is a born diplomat. Of course she has written before this, and without actually saying it has managed to convey the fact that you are a monster of perfidy; and Lisbeth, poor child, is probably crying her eyes out, or imagining she hates you, is ready to accept the first proposal she receives out of pure pique."
"Great heavens!" I exclaimed, "what on earth can I do?"
"You might go fishing," the Duchess suggested thoughtfully.
"Fishing!" I repeated, " - er, to be sure, but - "
"Riverdale is a very pretty place they tell me," pursued the Duchess in the same thoughtful tone; "there is a house there, a fine old place called Fane Court. It stands facing the river, and adjoins Selwyn Park, I believe."
"Duchess," I exclaimed, as I jotted down the address upon my cuff, "I owe you a debt of gratitude that I can never - "
"Tut, tut !" said her Grace.
"I think I'll start to-day, and - "
"You really couldn't do better," nodded the duchess.
* * * * *
And so it befell that on this August afternoon I sat in the shade of the alders fishing, with the smoke of my pipe floating up into the sunshine.
By adroit questioning I had elicited from mine host of the Three Jolly Anglers the precise whereabouts of Fane Court, the abode of Lisbeth's sister, and guided by his directions, had chosen this sequestered spot, where by simply turning my head I could catch a glimpse of its tall chimneys above the swaying green of the treetops.
It is a fair thing upon a summer's hot afternoon within some shady bower to lie upon one's back and stare up through a network of branches into the limitless blue beyond, while the air is full of the stir of leaves, and the murmur of water among the reeds. Or propped on lazy elbow, to watch perspiring wretches, short of breath and purple of visage, urge boats upstream or down, each deluding himself into the belief that he is enjoying it. Life under such conditions may seem very fair, as I say; yet I was not happy. The words of the Duchess seemed everywhere about me.
"You are become the object of her bitterest scorn by now," sobbed the wind.
"You are become," etc., etc., moaned the river. It was therefore with no little trepidation that I looked forward to my meeting with Lisbeth.
It was this moment that the bushes parted and a boy appeared. He was a somewhat diminutive boy, clad in a velvet suit with a lace collar, both of which were plentifully bespattered with mud. He carried his shoes and stockings beneath one arm, and in the other hand swung a hazel branch. He stood with his little brown legs well apart, regarding me with a critical eye; but when at length he spoke his attitude was decidedly friendly.
"Hallo," I returned; "and whom may you be?"
"Well," my real name is Reginald Augustus, but they call me 'The Imp.'"
"I can well believe it," I said, eyeing his muddy person.
"If you please, what is an imp?"
"An imp is a sort of an - angel."
"But," he demurred, after a moment's thought, "I haven't got wings an' things - or a trumpet."
"Your kind never do have wings and trumpets."
"Oh, I see," he said; and sitting down began to wipe the mud from his legs with his stockings.
"Rather muddy, aren't you?" I hinted. The boy cast a furtive glance at his draggled person.
"'Fraid I'm a teeny bit wet, too," he said hesitatingly. "You see, I've been playing at 'Romans" an' I had to wade, you know, because I was the standard bearer who jumped into the sea waving his sword an' crying, 'Follow me!' You remember him, don't you? - he's in the history book."
"To be sure," I nodded; "a truly heroic character. But if you were the Romans, where were the ancient Britons?"
"Oh, they were the reeds, you know; you ought to have seen me slay them. It was fine; they went down like - like - "
"Corn before a sickle," I suggested.
"Yes, just!" he cried; "the battle raged for hours."
"You must be rather tired."
"'Course not," he answered, with an indignant look. "I'm not a girl - and I'm nearly nine, too."
"I gather from your tone that you are not partial to the sex - you don't like girls, eh, Imp?"
"Should think not," he returned; silly things, girls are. There's Dorothy, you know; we were playing at executions the other day - she was Mary Queen of Scots an' I was the headsman. I made a lovely axe with wood and silver paper, you know; and when I cut her head off she cried awfully, and I only gave her the weeniest little tap - an' they sent me to bed at six o'clock for it. I believe she cried on purpose - awfully caddish, wasn't it?"
"My dear Imp," said I, "the older you grow, the more the depravity of the sex will become apparent to you."
"Do you know, I like you," he said, regarding me thoughtfully, "I think you are fine."
"Now that's very nice of you, Imp; in common with my kind I have a weakness for flattery-please go on."
"I mean, I think you are jolly."
"As to that," I said, shaking my head and sighing, "appearances are often very deceptive; at the heart of many a fair blossom there is a canker worm."
"I'm awfull' fond of worms, too," said the Imp.
"Yes. I got a pocketful yesterday, only Aunty found out an' made me let them all go again."
"Ah-yes," I said sympathetically; "that was the woman of it."
"I've only got one left now," continued the Imp; and thrusting a hand into the pocket of his knickerbockers he drew forth six inches or so of slimy worm and held it out to me upon his small, grimy palm.
"He's nice and fat!" I said.
"Yes," nodded the Imp; "I caught him under the gooseberry bushes;" and dropping it back into his pocket he proceeded to don his shoes and stockings.
"Fraid I'm a bit muddy," he said suddenly.
"Oh, you might be worse," I answered reassuringly.
"Do you think they'll notice it?" he inquired, contorting himself horribly in order to view the small of his back.
"Well," I hesitated, "it all depends, you know."
"I don't mind Dorothy, or Betty the cook, or the governess - it's Auntie Lisbeth I'm thinking about."
"Auntie - who?" I exclaimed, regardless of grammar.
" Auntie Lisbeth," repeated the Imp.
"What is she like?"
"Oh, she's grown up big, only she's nice. She came to take care of Dorothy an' me while mother goes away to get nice an strong - oh Auntie Lisbeth's jolly, you know."
"With black hair and blue eyes?"
The Imp nodded.
"And a dimple at the corner of her mouth?" I went on dreamily - " a dimple that would lead a man to the - Old Gentleman himself."
"What old gentleman?"
"Oh, a rather disreputable old gentleman," I answered evasively.
"An' do you know my Auntie Lisbeth?"
"I think it extremely probable - in fact, I'm sure of it."
"Then you might end me your handkerchief, please; I tied mine to a bush for a flag, you know, an' it blew away."
"You'd better come here and I'll give you a rub-down my Imp." He obeyed, with many profuse expressions of gratitude.
Hay you got any Aunties?" he inquired, as I laboured upon his miry person.
"No," I answered, shaking my head; "unfortunately mine are all Aunts and that is vastly different."
"Oh," said the Imp, regarding me with a puzzled expression; "are they nice - I mean do they ever read to out of the history book, and help you to sail boats, an' paddle?"
"Paddle?" I repeated
"Yes. My Auntie Lisbeth does. The other day we got up awfull' early an' went for a walk an' we came to the river, so we took off our shoes an' stockings an' we paddled; it was ever so jolly, you know. An' when Auntie wasn't looking I found a frog an' put it in her stocking."
"Highly strategic, my Imp! Well?"
"It was awful funny," he said, smiling dreamily. "When she went to put it on she gave a little high-up scream like Dorothy does when I pinch her a bit - an' then she throwed them both away, 'cause she was afraid there was frogs in both of them. Then she put on her shoes without any stockings at all, so I hid them."
"Where?" I cried eagerly.
"Reggie!" called a voice some distance away - a voice I recognised with a thrill. "Reggie!"
"Imp, would you like half a crown?"
"'Course I would; but you might clean my back, please," and he began rubbing himself feverishly with his cap, after the fashion of a scrubbing brush.
"Look here," I said, pulling out the coin, "tell me where you hid them - quick - and I'll give you this." The Imp held out his hand, but even as he did so the bushes parted and Lisbeth stood before us. She gave a little, low cry of surprise at sight of me, and then frowned.
"You?" she exclaimed.
"Yes," I answered, raising my cap. And there I stopped, trying frantically to remember the speech I had so carefully prepared - the greeting which was to have explained my conduct and disarmed her resentment at the very outset. But rack my brain as I would, I could think of nothing but the reproach in her eyes - her disdainful mouth and chin - and that one haunting phrase:
"'I suppose I am become the object of your bitterest scorn by now?'" I found myself saying.
"My aunt informed me of - of everything, and naturally - "
"Let me explain," I began.
"Really, it is not at all necessary."
"But, Lisbeth, I must - I insist - "
"Reginald," she said, turning toward the Imp, who was still busy with his cap, "it's nearly tea-time, and - why, whatever have you been doing to yourself?"
"For the last half hour," I interposed, "we have been exchanging our opinions on the sex."
"An' talking 'bout worms," added the Imp. "This man is fond of worms, too, Auntie Lisbeth - I like him."
"Thanks," I said; "but let me beg of you to drop your very distant mode of address, Call me Uncle Dick,"
"But you're not my Uncle Dick, you know," he demurred.
"Not yet, perhaps; but there's no knowing what may happen some day if your Auntie thinks us worthy - so take time by the forelock, my Imp, and call me Uncle Dick."
Whatever Lisbeth might or might not have said was checked by the patter of footsteps, and a little girl tripped into view, with a small, fluffy kitten cuddled in her arms.
"Oh, Auntie Lisbeth,"she began, but stopped to stare at me over the back of the fluffy kitten.
"Hallo, Dorothy!" cried the imp; "this is Uncle Dick. You can come an' shake hands with him if you like."
"I didn't know I had an Uncle Dick," said Dorothy, hesitating.
"Oh, yes; it's all right," answered the Imp reassuringly. "I found him, you know, an' he likes worms, too!"
"How do you do, Uncle Dick?" she said in a quaint, old-fashioned way. "Reginald is always finding things, you know, an' he likes worms, too!" Dorothy gave me her hand demurely.
>From somewhere near by there came the silvery chime of a bell.
"Why, there's the tea-bell!" exclaimed Lisbeth; "and, Reginald, you have to change those muddy clothes. Say good-bye to Mr. Brent, children, and come along."
"Imp," I whispered as the others turned away, "where did you hide those stockings?" And I slipped the half crown into his ready palm.
"Along the river there's a tree - very big an' awfull' fat, you know, with a lot of stickie-out branches, an' a hole in its stomach - they're in there."
"Reginald!" called Lisbeth.
"Up stream or down?"
"That way," he answered, pointing vaguely down stream; and with a nod that brought the yellow curls over his eyes he scampered off.
"Along the river," I repeated, "in a big, fat tree with a lot of stickie-out branches!" It sounded a trifle indefinite, I thought - still I could but try. So having packed up my rod I set out upon the search.
It was strange, perhaps, but nearly every tree I saw seemed to be either "big" or "fat" - and all of them had "stickie-out" branches.
Thus the sun was already low in the west, and I was lighting my fifth pipe when I at length observed the tree in question.
A great pollard oak it was, standing upon the very edge of the stream, easily distinguishable by its unusual size and the fact that at some time or another it had been riven by lightning. After all, the Imp's description had been in the main correct; it was "fat," immensely fat: and I hurried joyfully forward.
I was still some way off when I saw the distant flutter of a white skirt, and - yes, sure enough, there was Lisbeth, walking quickly too, and she was a great deal nearer the tree than I.
Prompted by a sudden conviction, I dropped my rod and began to run. Immediately Lisbeth began running, too. I threw away my creel and sprinted for all I was worth. I had earned some small fame at this sort of thing in my university days, yet I arrived at the tree with only a very few yards to spare. Throwing myself upon my knees, I commenced a feverish search, and presently - more by good fortune than any thing else - my random fingers encountered a soft, silken bundle. When Lisbeth came up, flushed and panting, I held them in my hands.
"Give them to me!" she cried.
"I'm sorry - "
"Please," she begged.
"I'm very sorry - "
"Mr. Brent." said Lisbeth, drawing her self up, "I'll trouble you for my - them."
"Pardon me, Lisbeth," I answered, "but if I remember anything of the law of 'treasure-trove' one of these should go to the Crown, and one belongs to me.
Lisbeth grew quite angry - one of her few bad traits.
"You will give them up at once - immediately?
"On the contrary," I said very gently, "seeing the Crown can have no use for one, I shall keep them both to dream over when the nights are long and lonely."
Lisbeth actually stamped her foot at me, and I tucked "them" into my pocket.
"How did you know they - they were here?" she inquired after a pause.
"I was directed to a tree with 'stickie-out' branches," I answered.
"Oh, that Imp!" she exclaimed, and stamped her foot again.
"Do you know, I've grown quite attached to that nephew of mine already?" I said.
"He's not a nephew of yours," cried Lisbeth quite hotly.
"Not legally, perhaps; that is where you might be of such assistance to us Lisbeth. A boy with only an aunt here and there is unbalanced, so to speak; be requires the stronger influence of an uncle. Not," I continued hastily, "that I would depreciate aunts - by the way, he has but one, I believe?" Lisbeth nodded coldly.
"Of course," I nodded; "and very lucky in that one - extremely fortunate. Now, years ago, when I was a boy, I had three, and all of them blanks, so to speak. I mean none of them ever read to me out of the history book, or helped me to sail boats, or paddled and lost their - No, mine used to lecture me about my hair and nails, I remember, and glare at me over the big tea urn until I choked into my teacup. A truly desolate childhood mine. I had no big-fisted uncle to thump me persuasively when I needed it; had fortune granted me one I might have been a very different man, Lisbeth. You behold in me a horrible example of what one may become whose boyhood has been denuded of uncles."
"If you will be so very obliging as to return my - my property."
"My dear Lisbeth," I sighed, "be reasonable; suppose we talk of something else;" and I attempted, though quite vainly, to direct her attention to the glories of the sunset.
A fallen tree lay near by, upon which Lisbeth seated herself with a certain determined set of her little, round chin that I knew well.
"And how long do you intend keeping me here?" she asked in a resigned tone.
"Always, if I had my way."
"Really?" she said, and whole volumes could never describe all the scorn she managed to put into that single word. "You see," she continued, "after what Aunt Agatha wrote and told me - "
"Lisbeth," I broke in, "if you'll only - "
"I naturally supposed - "
"If you'll only let me explain - "
"That you would abide by the promise you made her and wait - "
"Until you knew your own heart," I put in. "The question is, how long will it take you? Probably, if you would allow me to teach you - "
"Your presence here now stamps you as - as horribly deceitful!"
"Undoubtedly," I nodded; "but you see when I was foolish enough to give that promise your very excellent Aunt made no reference to her intentions regarding a certain Mr. Selwyn."
"Oh!" exclaimed Lisbeth. And feeling that I had made a point, I continued with redoubled ardour:
"She gave me to understand that she merely wished you to have time to know your own heart in the matter!" Now, as I said before, how long will it take you to find out, Lisbeth?"
She sat chin in hand staring straight before her, and her black brows were still drawn together in a frown!" But I watched her mouth - just where the scarlet underlip curved up to meet its fellow.
Lisbeth's mouth is a trifle wide, perhaps, and rather full-lipped, and somewhere at one corner - I can never be quite certain of its exact location, because its appearance is, as a rule, so very meteoric - but somewhere there is a dimple!" Now, if ever there was an arrant traitor in this world it is that dimple; for let her expression be ever so guileless, let her wistful eyes be raised with a look of tears in their blue depths, despite herself that dimple will spring into life and undo it all in a moment!" So it was now, even as I watched it quivered round her lips, and feeling herself betrayed, the frown vanished altogether and she smiled. "And now, Dick, suppose you give me my - my - "
"Conditionally," I said, sitting down beside her.
The sun had set, and from somewhere among the purple shadows of the wood the rich, deep notes of a blackbird came to us, with pauses now and then, filled in with the rustle of leaves and the distant lowing of cows.
"Not far from the village of Down in Kent," I began dreamily, "there stands an old house with quaint, high-gabled roofs and twisted Tudor chimneys!" Many years ago it was the home of fair ladies and gallant gentlemen, but its glory is long past!" And yet, Lisbeth, when I think of it at such an hour as this, and with you beside me, I begin to wonder if we could not manage between us to bring back the old order of things."
Lisbeth was silent.
It has a wonderful old-fashioned rose garden, and you are fond of roses, Lisbeth."
"Yes," she murmured; "I'm very fond of roses."
"They would be in full bloom now," I suggested.
There was another pause, during which the blackbird performed three or four difficult arias with astonishing ease and precision.
"Aunt Agatha is fond of roses, too!" said Lisbeth at last very gravely. "Poor, dear Aunt, I wonder what she would say if she could see us now?"
"Such things are better left to the imagination," I answered!"
"I ought to write and tell her," murmured Lisbeth.
"But you won't do that, of course?"
"No, I won't do that if - "
"If you will give me - them,"
"One," I demurred.
0n one condition then-just once, Lisbeth?"
Her lips were very near, her lashes drooped, and for one delicious moment she hesitated. Then I felt a little tug at my coat pocket and springing to he feet she was away with "them" clutched in her hand.
"Trickery!" I cried, and started in pursuit.
There is a path through the woods leading to the Shrubbery at Pane Court!" Down this she fled, and her laughter came to me on the wind. I was close upon her when she reached the gate, and darting through, turned, flushed but triumphant.
"I've won!" she mocked, nodding her head at me.
"Who can cope with the duplicity of a woman?" I retorted! "But, Lisbeth, you will give me one - just one?"
"It would spoil the pair."
"Oh, very well," I sighed, "good night, Lisbeth," and lifting my cap I turned away.
There came a ripple of laughter be hind me, something struck me softly upon the cheek, and stooping, I picked up that which lay half unrolled at my feet, but when I looked round Lisbeth was gone.
"So presently I thrust "them" into my pocket and walked back slowly along the river path toward the hospitable shelter of the Three Jolly Anglers.