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Chapter 6 The Wrong Turning

The way he helped her into the boat was delicious, simply delicious: it made her feel like a grown-up lady to be taken so much care of — usually, people didn’t mind how you got in and out of things, as you were only thirteen. And before he let her step off the landing he took her strap of books from her — those wretched schoolbooks, which stamped her, but which she hadn’t known how to get rid of: her one chance of going for a row was secretly, on her way home from school. But he seemed to understand, without being told, how she despised them, and he put them somewhere in the boat where they wouldn’t get wet, and yet she didn’t need to see them. (She wondered what he had done with his own.)

He was so NICE; everything about him was nice: his velvety brown eyes and white teeth; his pink cheeks and fair hair. And when he took his coat off and sat down, and rolled up his sleeves and spanned his wrists on the oars, she liked him better still: he looked so strong . . . almost as if he could have picked the boat up and carried it. He wasn’t at all forward either (she hated cheeky boys:) when he had to touch her hand he went brick red, and jumped his own hand away as quick as he could.

With one stroke they were off and gliding downstream . . . oh, so smoothly! It made her think of floating in milk . . . though the water was REALLY brown and muddy-looking. Soon they would be quite away from the houses and the little back-gardens and allotments that ran down to the water, and out among the woods, where the river twisted like a snake, and the trees hung over the edge and dipped their branches in . . . most romantically. Then perhaps he would say something. He hadn’t spoken yet; he was too busy rowing, making great sweeps with the oars, and not looking at her . . . or only taking a peep now and then, to see if she saw. Which she did, and her heart thumped with pleasure. Perhaps, as he was so clever at it, he’d be a sailor when he was a man and go to sea. But that would mean him travelling far away, and she might never see him again. And though she’d only known him for a fortnight, and at first he hadn’t liked to speak, but had just stood and made eyes at her when they met going home from school, she felt she simply couldn’t bear it if he did.

To hide her feelings, she hung one hand over the side of the boat and let it trail, through the water — keeping it there long after it was stone cold, in the hope that he would notice it and say something. But he didn’t.

The Boy was thinking: I wonder if I dare tell her not to . . . her little hand . . . all wet like that, and cold. I should like to take it in both mine, and rub it dry, and warm it. HOW pretty she is, with all that fuzzy-wuzzy hair, and the little curls on her forehead. And how long her eyelashes are when she looks down. I wish I could make her look up . . . look at me. But how? Why, say something, of course. But what? Oh, if ONLY I could think of something! What does one? What would Jim say, if he wanted to make his girl look at him?

But nothing came.

Here, however, the hand was jerked from the water to kill a gnat that had settled on the other.

This was his cue. He parted hastily with his saliva.

“I say! Did it sting?”

She suppressed the no that was on her lips. “Well . . . yes . . . I think it did, rather.” And doubling her bony little schoolgirl fingers into her palm, she held out the back of the hand for his inspection.

Steadying the oars, the Boy leant forward to look, leant so far that, for a wild moment, she believed he was going to kiss the place, and half instinctively, half from an equally strong impulse to “play him,” drew it away. But he did not follow it up: at the thought of a kiss, which HAD occurred to him, shyness lamed him anew. So nothing came of this either.

And we’ve only half an hour, thought the Girl distractedly. If he doesn’t say something . . . soon . . . there won’t be any time left. And then it will all have been for nothing.

She, too, beat her brains. “The trees . . . aren’t they pretty?— the way they hang right down in the water.” (Other couples stopped under these trees, she’d seen them, and lay there in their boats; or even went right in behind the weeping willows.)

But his sole response was: “Good enough.” And another block followed.

Oh, he saw quite well what she was aiming at: she wanted him to pull in to the bank and ship his oars, so that they could do a bit of spooning, she lying lazy in the stern. But at the picture a mild panic seized him. For, if he couldn’t find anything to say even when he was rowing, it would be ten times harder when he sat with his hands before him and nothing to do. His tongue would stick to the roof of his mouth, dry as a bone, and then she’d see for sure how dull he was. And never want to go out with him again. No, thank you, not for him!

But talk wasn’t everything — by gum, it wasn’t! He might be a rotten hand at speechifying, but what he could DO, that he’d jolly well show her! And under this urge to display his strength, his skill, he now fell to work in earnest. Forward swung the oars, cleanly carving the water, or lightly feathering the surface; on flew the boat, he driving to and fro with his jaws grimly set and a heightened colour, the muscles standing out like pencils on his arms. Oh, it was a fine thing to be able to row so well, and have a girl, THE girl, sitting watching you. For now her eyes hung on him, mutely adoring, spurring him on to ever bolder strokes.

And then a sheerly dreadful thing happened. So lost was he in showing his mastery, in feeding on her looks, that he failed to keep his wits about him. And, coming to a place where the river forked, he took the wrong turning, and before he knew it they were in a part where you were not supposed to go — a bathing-place for men, much frequented by soldiers.

A squeal from the Girl roused him; but then it was too late: they had shot in among a score of bathers, whose heads bobbed about on the surface like so many floating footballs. And instantly her shrill cry was taken up and echoed and re-echoed by shouts, and laughter, and rude hullos, as the swimmers scattered before the oars. Coarse jokes were bandied, too, at the unwarranted intrusion. Hi! wasn’t there nowhere else he could take his girl? Or was she coming in, too? Off with her togs then!

Crimson with mortification at his blunder, at the fool he had made of himself (before her), the Boy savagely strove to turn the boat and escape. But the heads — there seemed to be hundreds of them — deliberately blocked his way. And while he manoeuvred, the sweat trickling down his forehead, a pair of arms and shoulders reared themselves from the water, and two hands grasped the side of the boat. It rocked; and the Girl squealed anew, shrinking sideways from the nearness of the dripping, sunburnt flesh.

“Come on, missie, pay toll!”

The Boy swore aloud.

But even worse was to come. On one bank, a square of wooden palisades had been built out round a stretch of water and a wooden bath-house, where there were cabins for the men to strip in, platforms to jump from, ropes strung for those who could not swim. But in this fence was a great gap, where some of the palings had fallen down. And in his rage and confusion the Boy had the misfortune to bring the boat right alongside it; and then . . . then. . . . Inside the enclosure, out of the cabins, down the steps, men were running, jumping, chasing, leap-frogging . . . every one of them as naked as on the day he was born.

For one instant the Girl raised her eyes — one only . . . but it was enough. She saw. And he saw that she saw.

And now, to these two young creatures, it seemed as if the whole visible world — themselves, boat, river, trees and sky — caught fire, and blazed up in one gigantic blush. Nothing existed for them any more but this burning redness. Nor could they escape; there they had to sit, knee to knee, face to face, and scorch, and suffocate; the blood filling their eyes till they could scarcely see, mounting to their hair-roots, making even their finger-tips throb and tingle.

Gritting his teeth, the Boy rowed like a machine that had been wound up and was not to be stopped. The Girl sat with drooped head — it seemed to have grown strangely heavy — and but a single wish: to get out and away . . . where he could not see her. For all was over between them — both felt that. Something catastrophic had happened, rudely shattering their frail young dreams; breaking down his boyish privacy, pitching her headlong into a reality for which she was in no wise prepared.

If it had been hard beforehand to find things to say, it was now impossible. And on the way home no sound was to be heard but the dip of the oars, the water’s cluck and gurgle round the boat. At the landing-place, she got out by herself, took from him, without looking up, her strap of books, and said a brief good-bye; keeping to a walking pace till she had turned the corner, then breaking into a run, and running for dear life . . . as if chased by some grotesque nightmare-shape which she must leave far, far behind her . . . even in thought.


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