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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Share - Chapter 36. In The Dinghy
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The Lion's Share - Chapter 36. In The Dinghy Post by :adept Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2597

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The Lion's Share - Chapter 36. In The Dinghy

CHAPTER XXXVI. IN THE DINGHY

When the pair got back to the sea-wall the tide had considerably ebbed, and where the dinghy had floated there was nothing more liquid than exquisitely coloured mud. Nevertheless water still lapped the yacht, whereas on the shore side of the yacht was now no crowd. The vans and carts had all departed, and the quidnuncs and observers of human nature, having gazed steadily at the yacht for some ten hours, had thought fit to depart also. The two women looked about rather anxiously, as though Mr. Gilman had basely marooned them.

"But what must we do?" demanded Madame Piriac.

"Oh! We can walk round on the dyke," said Audrey superiorly. "Unless the stiles frighten you."

"It is about to rain," said Madame Piriac, glancing at the high curved heels of her shoes.

The sky, which was very wide and variegated over Mozewater, did indeed seem to threaten.

At that moment the dinghy appeared round the forefoot of the _Ariadne_. Mr. Gilman and Miss Thompkins were in it, and Mr. Gilman was rowing with gentleness and dignity. They had, even afar off, a tremendous air of intimacy; each leaned towards the other, face to face, and Tommy had her chin in her hands and her elbows on her knees. And in addition to an air of intimacy they had an air of mystery. It was surprising, and perhaps a little annoying, to Audrey that those two should have gone on living to themselves, in their own self-absorbed way, while such singular events had been happening to herself in Flank Hall. She put several fingers in her mouth and produced a piercing long-distance whistle which effectively reached the dinghy.

"My poor little one!" exclaimed Madame Piriac, shocked in spite of her broadmindedness by both the sound and the manner of its production.

"Oh! I learnt that when I was twelve," said Audrey. "It took me four months, but I did it. And nobody except Miss Ingate knows that I can do it."

The occupants of the dinghy were signalling their intention to rescue, and Mr. Gilman used his back nobly.

"But we cannot embark here!" Madame Piriac complained.

"Oh, yes!" said Audrey. "You see those white stones? ... It's quite easy."

When the dinghy had done about half the journey Madame Piriac murmured:

"By the way, who are you, precisely, for the present? It would be prudent to decide, darling."

Audrey hesitated an instant.

"Who am I? ... Oh! I see. Well, I'd better keep on being Mrs. Moncreiff for a bit, hadn't I?"

"It is as you please, darling."

The fact was that Audrey recoiled from a general confession, though admitting it to be ultimately inevitable. Moreover, she had a slight fear that each of her friends in turn might make a confession ridiculous by saying: "We knew all along, of course."

The dinghy was close in.

"My!" cried Tommy. "Who did that whistle? It was enough to beat the cars."

"Wouldn't you like to know!" Audrey retorted.

The embarkation, under Audrey's direction, was accomplished in safety, and, save for one tiny French scream, in silence. The silence, which persisted, was peculiar. Each pair should have had something to tell the other, yet nothing was told, or even asked. Mr. Gilman rowed with careful science, and brought the dinghy alongside the yacht in an unexceptionable manner. Musa stood on deck apart, acting indifference. Madame Piriac, having climbed into the _Ariadne_, went below at once. Miss Thompkins, seeing her friend Mr. Price half-way down the saloon companion, moved to speak to him, and they vanished together. Mr. Gilman was respectfully informed by the engineer that the skipper and Dr. Cromarty were ashore.

"How nice it is on the water!" said Audrey to Mr. Gilman in a low, gentle voice. "There is a channel round there with three feet of water in it at low tide." She sketched a curve in the air with her finger. "Of course you know this part," said Mr. Gilman cautiously and even apprehensively. His glance seemed to be saying: "And it was you who gave that fearful whistle, too! Are you, can you be, all that I dreamed?"

"I do," Audrey answered. "Would you like me to show it you."

"I should be more than delighted," said Mr. Gilman.

With a gesture he summoned a man to untie the dinghy again and hold it, and the man slid down into the dinghy like a monkey.

"I'll pull," said Audrey, in the boat.

The man sprang out of the dinghy.

"One instant!" Mr. Gilman begged her, standing up in the sternsheets, and popping his head through a porthole of the saloon. "Mr. Price!"

"Sir?" From the interior.

"Will you be good enough to play that air with thirty-six variations, of Beethoven's? We shall hear splendidly from the dinghy."

"Certainly, sir."

And Audrey said to herself: "You don't want him to flirt with Tommy while you're away, so you've given him something to keep him busy."

Mr. Gilman remarked under his breath to Audrey: "I think there is nothing finer than to hear Beethoven on the water."

"Oh! There isn't!" she eagerly concurred.

Ignoring the thirty-six variations of Beethoven, Audrey rowed slowly away, and after about a hundred yards the boat had rounded a little knoll which marked the beginning of a narrow channel known as the Lander Creek. The thirty-six variations, however, would not be denied; they softly impregnated the whole beautiful watery scene.

"Perhaps," said Mr. Gilman suddenly, "perhaps your ladyship was not quite pleased at me rowing-about with Miss Thompkins--especially after I had taken her for a walk." He smiled, but his voice was rather wistful. Audrey liked him prodigiously in that moment.

"Foolish man!" she replied, with a smile far surpassing his, and she rested on her oars, taking care to keep the boat in the middle of the channel. "Do you know why I asked you to come out? I wanted to talk to you quite privately. It is easier here."

"I'm so glad!" he said simply and sincerely. And Audrey thought: "Is it possible to give so much pleasure to an important and wealthy man with so little trouble?"

"Yes," she said. "Of course you know who I really am, don't you, Mr. Gilman?"

"I only know you're Mrs. Moncreiff," he answered.

"But I'm not! Surely you've heard something? Surely it's been hinted in front of you?"

"Never!" said he.

"But haven't you asked--about my marriage, for instance?"

"To ask might have been to endanger your secret," he said.

"I see!" she murmured. "How frightfully loyal you are, Mr. Gilman! I do admire loyalty. Well, I dare say very, very few people do know. So I'll tell you. That's my home over there." And she pointed to Flank Hall, whose chimneys could just be seen over the bank.

"I admit that I had thought so," said Mr. Gilman.

"But naturally that was your home as a girl, before your marriage."

"I've never been married, Mr. Gilman," she said. "I'm only what the French call a _jeune fille_."

His face changed; he seemed to be withdrawing alarmed into himself.

"Never--been married?"

"Oh! You _must understand me!" she went on, with an appealing vivacity. "I was all alone. I was in mourning for my father and mother. I wanted to see the world. I just had to see it! I expect I was very foolish, but it was so easy to put a ring on my finger and call myself Mrs. And it gave me such advantages. And Miss Ingate agreed. She was my mother's oldest friend.... You're vexed with me."

"You always seemed so wise," Mr. Gilman faltered.

"Ah! That's only the effect of my forehead!"

"And yet, you know, I always thought there was something very innocent about you, too."

"I don't know what _that was," said Audrey. "But honestly I acted for the best. You see I'm rather rich. Supposing I'd only gone about as a young marriageable girl--what frightful risks I should have run, shouldn't I? Somebody would be bound to have married me for my money. And look at all I should have missed--without this ring! I should never have met you in Paris, for instance, and we should never have had those talks.... And--and there's a lot more reasons--I shall tell you another time--about Madame Piriac and so on. Now do say you aren't vexed!"

"I think you've been splendid," he said, with enthusiasm. "I think the girls of to-day _are splendid! I've been a regular old fogey, that's what it is."

"Now there's one thing I want you not to do," Audrey proceeded. "I want you not to alter the way you talk to me. Because I'm really just the same girl I was last night. And I couldn't bear you to change."

"I won't! I won't! But of course----"

"No, no! No buts. I won't have it. Do you know why I told you just this afternoon? Well, partly because you were so perfectly sweet last night. And partly because I've got a favour to ask you, and I wouldn't ask it until I'd told you."

"You can't ask me a favour," he replied, "because it wouldn't be a favour. It would be my privilege."

"But if you put it like that I can't ask you."

"You must!" he said firmly.

Then she told him something of the predicament of Jane Foley. He listened with an expression of trouble. Audrey finished bluntly: "She's my friend. And I want you to take her on the yacht to-night after it's dark. Nobody but you can save her. There! I've asked you!"

"Jane Foley!" he murmured.

She could see that he was aghast. The syllables of that name were notorious throughout Britain. They stood for revolt, damage to property, defiance of law, injured policemen, forcible feeding, and all sorts of phenomena that horrified respectable pillars of society.

"She's the dearest thing!" said Audrey. "You've no idea. You'd love her. And she's done as much for Women's Suffrage as anybody in the world. She's a real heroine, if you like. You couldn't help the cause better than by helping her. And I know how keen you are to help." And Audrey said to herself: "He's as timid as a girl about it. How queer men are, after all!"

"But what are we to do with her afterwards?" asked Mr. Gilman. There was perspiration on his brow.

"Sail straight to France, of course. They couldn't touch her there, you see, because it's political. It _is political, you know," Audrey insisted proudly.

"And give up all our cruise?"

Audrey bent forward, as she had seen Tommy do. She smiled enchantingly. "I quite understand," she said, with a sort of tenderness. "You don't want to do it. And it was a shame of me even to suggest it."

"But I do want to do it," he protested with splendid despairful resolve. "I was only thinking of you--and the cruise. I do want to do it. I'm absolutely at your disposal. When you ask me to do a thing, I'm only too proud. To do it is the greatest happiness I could have."

Audrey replied softly:

"You deserve the Victoria Cross."

"Whatever do you mean?" he demanded nervously.

"I don't know exactly what I mean," she said. "But you're the nicest man I ever knew."

He blushed.

"You mustn't say that to me," he deprecated.

"I shall, and I shall."

The sound of the thirty-six variations still came very faintly over the water. The sun sent cataracts of warm light across all the estuary. The water lapped against the boat, and Audrey was overwhelmed by the inexplicable marvel of being alive in the gorgeous universe.

"I shall have to back water," she said, low. "There's no room to turn round here."

"I suppose we'd better say as little about it as possible," he ventured.

"Oh! Not a word! Not a word till it's done."

"Yes, of course." He was drenched in an agitating satisfaction.

Five bells rang clear from the yacht, overmastering the thirty-six variations.

Audrey thought:

"So he'd never agree, wouldn't he, Madame Piriac!"

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