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Arthur Craddock got up.
"I will go and tell her," he said.
"So good of you: I am ashamed to trouble you," said Wroughton, not moving.
He walked down to the edge of the lawn, where was the landing-stage.
"We are talking business, Miss Joyce," he said, "so will you come back for us in five minutes. You have just stepped off some Greek frieze of the best period, let me tell you. I long to recline like a teetotal Silenus of the worst period on those cushions. In five minutes, then?"
Joyce leaned towards him on her punt-pole and spoke low.
"Oh, Mr. Craddock," she said. "Are you talking about the Reynolds? Father told me he was thinking of selling it. Do persuade him not to. I am so fond of it."
She gave him a little friendly nod and smile.
"Do try," she said. "Yes, I will come back in five minutes. There's a swans' nest among the reeds down there, and I will just go to see if the cygnets are hatched out yet."
Wroughton looked languidly at him on his return.
"Joyce has a ridiculous affection for that portrait," he said, "and I have a reasonable affection for it. I can't afford to look at it: I am far more in need of a suitable winter climate than of any work of art. Yet sometimes I wish that these Pactolus-people had left us alone."
This was not a strictly logical attitude, for it was obviously possible to refuse the offer, and leave the Pactolus-people alone. Nothing more than an opportunity had been offered him, of which he was free to take advantage or not, just as he chose. As for Craddock, he felt himself advantageously placed, for if he upheld Joyce's wish, he would ingratiate himself with her, while if the sale took place, he would reap an extremely handsome profit himself. For the moment the spell of the riverside Diana was the most potent.
"I can understand Miss Joyce's feeling," he said, "and yours also, when you wish that the Pactolus-people as you so rightly call them had left you alone. I respect those feelings, I share and endorse them. So let us discuss the question no further. I will tell my friend that I cannot induce you to part with your picture. No doubt he will find other owners not so sensitive and fine as you and Miss Joyce. Of course he will be disappointed, but equally of course I gave him to understand that I could in no way promise success in the enterprise."
Even as he spoke the balance wavered. He could tell Joyce that he had urged her father not to part with his picture, and her gratitude would be earned, and he knew that he wanted that more than he wanted to gratify her by his success. Thus it was satisfactory to find that he had not disturbed the stability of Wroughton's determination, and his profit was safe also.
"Ah, that is all very well for you," said Wroughton, "with your robust health and your ignorance of what it means to be so poor that you cannot afford the alleviation which would make life tolerable. Beggars cannot afford to be so fine.Even Joyce does not know what I suffer in this miserable swamp during the winter months. But I am convinced she cannot have her father and the picture with her, for I am sure I should never survive another winter here."
His thin peaked face grew soft with self-pity, which was the most poignant emotion that ever penetrated to his mind.
"She would bitterly reproach herself," he went on, "if after I am gone, she conjectured that I might have been spared to her a little longer if I had been able to spend the winter months in a climate less injurious to me. She does not really know how ill I am, for of course I do not speak to her about that. I want to spare her all the anxiety I can, and in speaking to her of my project of spending the winter in some sunny climate, in Egypt or on the Riviera, I have laid stress only on the pleasure that such a visit will give her. No, no, Mr. Craddock, my poor Joyce and I must put our pride in our pocket; indeed there is nothing else there. I will close with your American friend's offer: my mind is made up. Naturally I should want a good copy of the picture made for me without cost to myself. It might be possible for you in your great kindness to arrange that for me. You might perhaps make it part of the condition of sale: five thousand pounds and a good copy."
Craddock waved this aside. He had delicately disposed of another bun.
"That is easily arranged," he said, wiping his fingers that were a little sticky with the sugar on his fine cambric handkerchief. "I feel sure I can guarantee his acceptance of your terms."
Philip Wroughton coughed gently once or twice. He always said that questions concerning money were distasteful to him. It is quite true that they were so, when they concerned his parting with it.
"And am I right in supposing that you would expect whatever the usual commission happens to be?" he asked. "If so, shall I pay it, or your friend?"
Craddock interrupted him with the promptitude born of horror at such a suggestion.
"I beg you not to hurt my feelings by proposing anything of the kind," he said.
Philip Wroughton instantly and with apologies withdrew his inhumanity.
By this time Joyce had returned from her expedition to the swans' nest and was waiting for them. She had already put into the punt a selection of grey Shetland shawls, with a quantity of cushions, and the task of making her father quite secure and comfortable next demanded all her patience and serenity. But she had to make one more expedition to the house to get his white umbrella, for the heat of the sun not yet set might easily penetrate the black one which he had brought with him. He needed also a fly-whisk in case the midges became troublesome, a binocular glass, and the very careful disposition of cushions so that no draught could conceivably come through the cane back against which he reclined. Then, when he was quite settled, Craddock got in, and Joyce pushed out into the stream leaving two pairs of pathetic dogs' eyes wistfully regarding her from the bank. But it was impossible to take Huz and Buz, his brother, when her father was in the punt, for they fidgeted him on these hot days with their panting, and could not be relied on to keep perfectly and permanently motionless.
Joyce, as was usual with her, was bareheaded, and was clad in a very simple home-made skirt of butcher's blue much stained with water and bleached with sun, and a white flannel blouse the arms of which she had rolled up to above her elbows; but Craddock, who was a skilled appreciator with regard to female apparel, would not have had her change her really elementary garments for the most sumptuous and glittering fabrics. In general, he entirely believed that a woman's beauty is enhanced by the splendour of her attire, and saw the value of satin and tiaras. But there was something so completely satisfying and suitable in this rough river-dress that he would not have added any embellishment to it, nor have expunged a single water-stain or sun-bleach. The girl's superb slim figure, divine in the elasticity of its adolescence, now bending to her stroke, now rigidly erect again as she trailed her pole back through the frilled water, stood out in the simplicity of Attic relief with its plain white and blue against the reflected greens and browns which the trees and shady places cast onto the polished mirror of the water. Her arms bare to above the elbow showed the full roundness and soft, slim strength of her beautiful limbs, and for the most part, except when she turned at the end of her stroke, her face was in profile to him, giving him the short, straight nose of the Reynolds picture, the fine mouth with generous underlip a little drooping, and the firm oval of the curve from chin to ear. Here in the stern, while she made these magnificent sweeps and curtsies with her punt-pole, were sitting her father and himself, and he had no need to glance at Mr. Wroughton, or to think consciously of himself with his obese and middle-aged figure in order to remind himself of the glorious contrast between the passengers and the splendour of their long-limbed conductress. She was Thames, she was June, she was the enchanted incarnation of all that was immortally young and beautiful, and though naturally vain, he felt delighted to be part of her foil, to set her off more than any "silk and fine array" could have done. For the first time he hardly knew whether he did not admire the Reynolds portrait so much because it was so like her. There was the same spirit of wind and woodland and sunshine and joyous serenity about it. The type was here incarnate, and he bathed his mind in it, washing off, temporarily at least, the merchandise and tittle-tattle of its normal environment. Surely this admiration of his touched ecstasy, touched love.
There soon came a turn in this sunny fluid reach of Thorley, and Mr. Wroughton, without imprudence, furled his white umbrella, and adjusted his binoculars for a languid survey of the shadowed river. On one side a wood of tall virginal beeches clad the hill-side down to the edge of the towing-path, and the huge curves of aspiring tree-tops climbed unbroken to the summit of the hill. A fringe of hawthorn-trees, cascades of red and white, bordered this fairyland of forest, and below the towing-path a strip of river-fed grasses and herbs of the water-side were fresh and feathery. Spires of meadow-sweet reared their stiff-stemmed umbrellas of cream-colour, and loosestrife pointed its mauve spires into the tranquil air. The dog-rose spread its maiden-hued face skywards, with defence of long-thorned shoots, and lovely sprays with half-opened chalices hung Narcissus-like above the tranquil tide. Below the water waved secret forests of river-weed, with darting fishes for birds in the drowned branches, that undulated in the stream, and here and there tall clumps of rushes with their dry brown blooms wagged and oscillated mysteriously to the twitchings of unseen currents. To the left the ground was low-lying in stretch of tree-bordered meadow, and from not far in front of them the sleepy murmur of Thorley weir sounded with the cool melodious thunder of its outpoured and renewed waters. Willows fringed the banks, and glimpses of meadow behind them, lying open to the level rays of the declining sun, shone with their rival sunlight of buttercup and luxuriant marsh marigold. Birds were busy among the bushes with supper, and resonant with even-song, and jubilant thrushes were rich with their rapturous and repeated phrases. And Arthur Craddock with his swift artistic sense, not too sophisticated for simplicity, saw with an appreciation that was almost tremulous how all this benediction of evening and bird-song and running water was reflected and focussed in the tall bending figure of this beautiful girl, and in her vigour and in the serenity of her brown level eyes. She was in tune with it, beating to its indwelling rhythm, a perfect human instrument in this harmony and orchestra of living things, part of it, thrilling to it, singing with it…
And the fact that he saw this so strongly, appreciated it so justly, measured the myriad miles he was distant from loving her. An infinite hair-breadth placed him further from love than is the remotest star from the revolving earth.
They glided up opposite a juncture of streams. To the right lay the main body of the river towards Thorley lock, to the left a minor stream hurried from the low-thundering weir. Joyce pushed strongly outwards on the right of the punt, and turned it with frill of protesting water into the narrower and swifter stream, willow-framed on both sides. Here there was shallower and more rapid water, that gleamed over bright gravel-beds, and even as they turned a king-fisher ashine with sapphire and turquoise wheeled like a jewelled boomerang close in front of them, giving a final hint of the gleaming romance and glory that lies so close below the surface of the most routined and rutted life. They made a sharp angle round a corner, and close in front of them was the grey spouting weir, and the deep pool below it, lucid with ropes and necklaces of foam and iridescent bubble. A long spit of land jutted out into the river and on it was a grey canvas tent.
Joyce had been punting on the right of the boat with her back to this, but just as they came opposite to it, the shifting current of the stream thrown across it by this spit of land made it advantageous to change the sides of her poling, and from close at hand she saw the tent and the presumed inhabitants thereof, two young men, one perhaps eighteen years old, the other some four or five years his senior. They were as suitably clad as she and more scantily, for a shirt and a pair of trousers apiece, without further decoration of tie or shoe or sock, was all that could be claimed for either of them. The younger was utterly intent on some elementary cooking-business over a spirit-lamp; the elder with brush and palette in hand was frowningly absorbed in a picture that stood on an easel in front of him. So close to the river-bank was the easel set, that it was impossible not to apprehend the vivid presentment that stood on it: there was the weir and the nude figure of a boy on the header-board in the act of springing from it into the water. Then at the moment when the punt was closest, the artist, hitherto so intent on his picture that the advent of the punt was as unnoticed by him as by the boy who bent over the spirit-lamp, looked away from his canvas and saw them. Thereat he attended no more to his work, but merely stared (rudely, if it had not been instinctively) at Joyce with young eager eyes, half-opened mouth, vivid, alert, and suitable to the romance of the river-side and the pulse of the beating world. It seemed right that he should be there; like Joyce and the willow-trees, he belonged to the picture that would have been incomplete without him, young and smooth-faced, and barefooted and bright-haired.
On the instant the cooking-boy spoke, high and querulously.
"Oh, Charles," he said, "this damned omelette won't do anything. It's a sort of degraded glue."
Joyce laughed before she knew she had laughed, with her eyes still on Charles. Indeed she hardly knew she laughed at all, any more than a child knows, who laughs for a reason as primal as the beat of the heart. The blood flows… Then, still primally, she saw his responsive amusement, and as they laughed, a glance as fresh as the morning of the world passed between them. She had looked at him no longer than it took her to pull her punt-pole up to her side again, then turning her head, in obedience to the exigence of another stroke, she looked away from him. But it seemed to her that that one moment had been from everlasting. It was the only thing that concerned her, that meant anything… And the strange fantastic moment was passed. Craddock's voice terminated it.
"Your glasses for a second, Mr. Wroughton," he said, and without waiting for verbal permission he snatched them up with a quickness of movement that was rare with him, and had one fleeting look at Charles' picture. The next stroke of the punt-pole took them round the spit of land into the bubble and foam of the bathing-pool below the weir.
Joyce skirted round this, keeping in shallow water and out of the current. A backwash of water made it unnecessary for her to exert herself further for a moment, and she turned full-face to the two men. Something within her, some indwelling beat of harmony with the simple and serene things of the world, made a smile, as unconscious as her laugh had been, to uncurl her lips.
"What a jolly time those two boys are having," she said. "I hope the omelette will cease to be degraded glue. And, Mr. Craddock, wasn't Charles – the cook called him Charles – wasn't Charles painting rather nicely? Did you see?"
Certainly Craddock had seen, though he wanted to see again, but it was her father who answered.
"I think we will turn and go home, Joyce," he said. "It will be chilly at sunset. What have you done with my second shawl?"
Joyce laid down the dripping punt-pole.
"Here it is," she said. "Will you have it over your shoulders or on your knees?"
The bows of the punt were caught by the weir-stream, and the boat swung swiftly round.
"Take care, Joyce," he cried. "You will have us swamped. And you should not put down your punt-pole in the boat. It has wetted me."
Joyce spread the second shawl over his knees, and tucked the edges of it round him.
"No, dear, it hasn't touched you," she said, "and we aren't going to be swamped."
She took up her pole again, and a couple of strokes sent them swiftly gliding down the rapid water. Next moment they were again opposite the tent; one boy was still stirring the deferred omelette, the artist with brush still suspended had his eyes fixed on their punt. Once again Joyce's glance met his, and once again Arthur Craddock picked up Wroughton's glasses, and got a longer look at the picture on the easel, before they floated out of range. He was even more impressed by this second glance; there was a vitality and a sureness about the work which was remarkable. For the moment the thought of the Reynolds, and even Joyce herself, blue and white with the background of feathery willow trees, was effaced from his mind. Certainly the boy could paint, and he was for ever on the look-out for those who could paint, more particularly if they were young and unknown. He felt certain he had never seen work by this young man before, for he could not have forgotten such distinctive handling. As certainly he would see artist and canvas again before he left Thorley. This was the sort of opportunity with which his quick unerring judgment was occasionally rewarded. There might be a bargain to be made here.
Philip Wroughton was in amazingly genial humour that night, and read them extracts about the climate of Egypt from a guide-book. He had quite an affecting and tender little scene with Joyce, in the presence of Arthur Craddock on the subject of the sale of the picture, and had told her with a little tremble of his voice that it was for her to choose whether she would part with the portrait or himself, according to the formula he had already employed in discussing the matter with Craddock. On this second repetition it had gained reality in his mind, and Joyce with her sweet indulgence for all that concerned her father did him the justice of recognizing that to him this tissue of imagination was of solid quality. Somehow the prospective loss of the picture, too, did not weigh heavily with her, for she was conscious of a sunlight of inward happiness which could not be clouded by any such event. She had no idea from whence it sprang, it seemed to be connected with no particular happening, but was like one of those hours of childhood which we remember all our lives when we were intensely and utterly happy for no definite reason. Never, too, had she seen her father more alive and alert, and he went so far as to drink nearly a whole glass of the bottle of champagne which he had opened for his guest, to wish prosperity and a happy home for the portrait. But, in this established imperfection of human things, he had slight qualms on the wisdom of this daring proceeding, and bade himself remember to take a little digestive dose as soon as dinner was over.
"With a good copy here in its old place," he said, "I have no doubt that we shall not really miss it. Joyce, my dear, these beans are not sufficiently cooked. And, Mr. Craddock, I hope you will arrange that the transaction shall be quite private. We, Joyce and I, do not want the fact that I have had to sell the picture publicly known."
Lady Crowborough gave a little shrill laugh at this, without explanation of her amusement.
"It shall not be spoken of at all," said Craddock, "nor of course will the picture be seen in London. It shall go straight from your house to Philadelphia. Why, even your servants need not know. The copy will one morning take the place of the original, which I will arrange shall not be moved until the copy is ready. I will get a copyist to do the work here, if that is agreeable to you. Mr. Ward naturally will want to see his picture before the purchase is complete, but you need not see him. He will call at a time convenient to yourself. But should you care to see him, you will find him a very agreeable fellow."
Mr. Wroughton held up his hand which was thin almost to transparency.
"No, spare me the sight of my executioner," he said.
"I don't know where you get all these fine feelings from," remarked his mother. "Not from my side of the family. I'll see Mr. Ward for you, and see if I can't get him to buy some garnets of mine that I never wear. I shall like a month or two in Egypt with you, Philip."
"Too long a journey for you, mother, I am afraid," said Philip hastily.
"There! I knew you'd say something mean," said she, rising. "Well, I've finished my dinner, and I shall get to my Patience."
The night had fallen hot and starry and still, and though it was not to be expected that Mr. Wroughton should risk himself in the air after dinner, Craddock and Joyce at his suggestion strolled down to the river's edge in the gathering dusk. The even-song of birds was over, and bats wheeled in the darkening air, and moths hovered over the drowsy fragrance of the flower-beds. From somewhere not far away sounded the tinkle of a guitar accompanying some boyish tenor, and Joyce without thought, found herself wondering whether this was the voice of Charles of the unknown surname, or the anonymous fashioner of the omelette. The tune was tawdry enough, a number from some musical comedy, and though the performer had no particular skill either of finger or throat, the effect was young and fresh, and not in discord with the midsummer stillness. Something of the same impression was made on Arthur Craddock also, who listened with an indulgent smile on his big face that gleamed whitely in the faded day and dimness of stars.
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