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The Royal Magazine, February 1901


by Rafael Sabatini

At the time that Uncle Harry was thirty-five, I was just bordering upon eighteen, with that vast knowledge of the world peculiar to my age, an appetite that was rather more than healthy, and a moustache of whose existence I alone seemed cognisant.

We went just then—Uncle Harry and I—to live at Stollbridge, in a large, old-fashioned house on the river. There was a lawn that ran down to the very water's edge, and an empty boathouse. By dint of endless blandishments I induced Uncle Harry to put a Canadian canoe into it, and after I had upset the beastly thing four times on four successive days, I began to master the art of keeping it right side upwards with a fair degree of success. In the process I ruined four suits of clothes, and five pounds' worth of upholstery with which the boat had been fitted; I lost a gold watch, a silver cigarette case, four six shilling novels and no end of self-respect.

Uncle Harry had pointed out in the most discourteous manner imaginable that my four shipwrecks had cost something like fifty pounds, and consigned the canoe to a remote, torrid zone that is not to be found on any Christian school maps.

"Let me catch you again bringing half the river into the house in your clothes," he wound up, "and I'll burn that infernal boat of yours."

His words sank deep into my heart, for at the time there were more reasons than one why I should desire to retain the canoe. The most potent reason of all was Tommy. Her real name was Amy Learoyd, but everybody called her Tommy. She was the bonniest maid conceivable; the very incarnation of Gilbert's "Beautiful English Girl;" healthy in limb and mind, rosy of cheek, and merry of eye, with a laugh that was good to hear, and she laughed often—at me.

We had met at Buxton a couple of years before, and at the time—precocious urchin that I was—I had fallen badly in love. But we had gone our different ways, and at sixteen one's memory is short in such matters. When I came to make the discovery, however, that the Learoyds were the occupants of Holt House—some three miles up the river—my recollections were stirred up, and kindled in me a burning desire to renew our acquaintance.

I became a very constant visitor at the Learoyd's, and for a while I was content that Tommy should teach me to play tennis as tennis should not be played. Then followed the canoe episodes, and finally when I had, as I have shown, mastered the thing, it occurred to me that it would be exceedingly pleasant if, in return for her tennis lessons, I were to teach Tommy to paddle.

Accordingly I made my way up stream one bright summer afternoon, and found Tommy sitting on the low wall of her garden, in a white gown that defied description. I did not mention the little mishaps that I had recently encountered; such a task I took to be both unnecessary and unprofitable. Her mind jumped at the idea, just as her body would have jumped into the canoe, had I not imbued her with a due sense of the caution necessary to effect a dry and successful embarkation.

"How delightfully comfortable," she purred, as she sank back on to the gaudy, new cushions, which I had brought out partly to do her honour, and partly because the wishy-washy appearance of the others told a story that might have shaken her confidence in my skill. "How delightfully comfortable! You dear, thoughtful man."

Our trip was in every respect a success, and it is not surprising that it should have been followed by several other equally successful ones, until at the end of about a month I became so rabidly in love that I began to take a serious view of things, and—although Tommy was four years my senior—to look at life as one long, delightful journey a deux in a Canadian canoe.

The impending crisis was unexpectedly accelerated by Uncle Harry one evening at dinner. He had been rather silent during the meal, and whenever he chanced to address me it was with an asperity of tone that was not calculated to render our board a festive one. As soon as Stephen—his jack-of-all-trades of a servant—had left the room, he fired his bomb.

"I want to say a word or two on a rather painful subject, Charles, if you will be good enough to listen."

Urbane and polished though he always was, there was a strained politeness about him that augured anything but well.

"Ye—es," I answered.

"I saw you on the river to-day, about a mile above Holt House. I don't think you saw me; I was on the steam launch"—he alluded to a noisy little steamer that did a ferry service up and down the river.

"You were not alone," he added impressively.

"No—o, uncle." In my heart I was glad he had found me out. He was saving me a lot of ice-breaking.

"You had a—er—female with you."

The disrespectful epithet, which he had chosen with great care, was decidedly discouraging. Nevertheless, I overlooked the fact at the moment, and made the rapturous exclamation:

"Isn't she lovely, uncle?"

He fixed me with a severe eye.

"She may be ravishing," he answered with biting sarcasm; "nevertheless, you are committing the gravest of errors if you imagine that I approach so painful a subject for the purpose of discussing this—er—person's charms."

"But, uncle—"

"One moment, if you please. I wish you to understand, Charles, that I have cause to be displeased with you. You have not behaved with that uprightness characteristic—on your mother's side at least—of the family to which you have the honour to belong. You have led me to believe that these long excursions of yours in the canoe, which in a moment of weakness I purchased for you, were undertaken so that out in the open air you might, by reading, make amends for the years that you wasted at College. I do not say that you have deliberately told me an untruth, but you have suppressed the truth, which amounts to the same thing."

"But, uncle—"

"Interrupt me once again," he said calmly, "and I shall give orders for your canoe to be broken up for firewood." Uncle Harry had the faculty of calmness largely developed. He would deliver himself of the most scathing speech conceivable without permitting a muscle of his face to move, and without altering in the least the monotonous inflection of his level tones.

"I do not wish, Charles, to be under the unpleasant necessity of again reverting to this distasteful topic, and I shall look to you not to give me cause to do so. To ensure for myself the peace I seek, and to which I believe myself entitled, I ask you now, Charles, to give me your word that you will not again permit yourself to repeat the folly which I had the misfortune to witness this afternoon."

"I am very sorry, sir, but I can't promise," I answered boldly. "I couldn't keep my word if I were to give it. I am glad in a way that you mentioned the matter, uncle, because I intended to have spoken of it to-night. I wish to—to ask you to sanction my engagement to—"

"Charles!" he burst out excitedly. Then suddenly recovering himself: "Please say no more," he continued. "Forgive me if I call you an idiot and if I bewail the fact that you are my nephew. Definitely allow me to answer that nothing could ever induce me to sanction such an act of folly. You are eighteen years old—an infant at law, and a baby in intelligence—and you wish to become engaged to the first scheming petticoat you come across! If you were not my nephew, my sister's son, I should laugh at you. Unfortunately our relationship denies me even that scant satisfaction.

"But uncle—" I cried indignantly, "you are most unreasonable. She is Miss—"

"I have not the least desire in the world to know who she is," he interrupted, rising. "She is a woman. A woman, Charles, as you will learn when you are older, is a creature that preys upon men of weak intellect with the object of inducing them to commit against themselves the crime of matrimony." He pushed his chair forward, and leaning over the back of it—"Let me hear no more of this, Charles," he said with sudden sternness. "Since you won't give me the promise I ask of you, understand at least that I forbid—utterly forbid—the continuance of these clandestine meetings. Let me see or hear of a repetition, and I shall effectively stop matters by sending you out to your brother in Jamaica; and in Jamaica you shall remain until you have reached the age of manhood—the age of reason, I am afraid, you will never reach. I am going into the garden."

The threat to send me to Jamaica had been worn too threadbare to inspire much fear. I had heard it about once a week, on an average, ever since I had lived at my uncle's mercy, so that I came to look for it as the peroration in each reproving discourse to which he treated me.

Nevertheless, three days went by before I again launched the canoe. Uncle Harry was nowhere to be seen; in fact, I believed him to have gone into the town. But suddenly, just as I was pushing off:

"Charles," came his voice from the lawn behind me, "I trust that you will bear in mind our conversation of Tuesday night."

"All right, Uncle Harry," I shouted back, as I got out into the middle of the stream, and then made off as fast as I could drive the boat. And as I went I made up my mind that with my uncle's sanction or without it I would propose to Tommy Learoyd before I returned home that evening.

The lawn at Holt House was deserted when I got there, so landing and drawing up the canoe, I went in quest of the family, as it seemed probable that where the family was there would Tommy be. I found them in the tennis court at the back—the two girls, Mrs. Learoyd and a young man from town with yellow hair, whom Tommy was teaching to play tennis. That girl never wasted a chance of teaching a man tennis.

"Hullo!" she cried when she caught sight of me, then added in a breath, "Forty, love," followed by her inevitable laugh.

After that ladylike and affectionate greeting, there was nothing left for me but to drop into a wicker chair besides Mrs. Learoyd and listen to her dissertation upon that profound and many-sided question—the weather.

At last the set was over, and Tommy came across to where we sat, flushed with victory and exertion, and bringing her defeated and perspiring opponent with her, she introduced him to me as Mr. Palethorpe.

"Did you bring the canoe?" she asked me.

"Yes. I thought that you might like a ride."

"So I should." Then turning to Palethorpe, "I can paddle beautifully," she declared with touching modesty. "I'll take you out after tea."

"That would be delightfully cool," said Palethorpe.

Of course, I professed myself delighted with the arrangement, and after tea I assisted them into the boat, and pushed them off; then I sat down in solitude by a clump of bushes, and set myself to invoke untold blessing upon the iniquitous soul of Leslie Palethorpe.

Some fifty yards below Holt House the river took a sharp curve to the right, and round this curve in a moment came a man in a whiff, pulling as if he had a train to catch.

"So long, Charlie," Tommy sang out as she headed the boat up stream. "You can think about me until we come back. We won't be long."

Palethorpe declared that it "was an awfully jolly boat," smiled a feeble smile, and waved a feeble hand at me, then, happening to catch a glimpse of the man in the whiff—

"Boat ahead!" he yelled in terror.

"Look out!" I shouted from the bank.

The next instant there was a crash, followed by an oath from the man in the whiff, a cry of alarm from Tommy, a terrified gurgle from Palethorpe, and a terrific splash from all three. I beheld a vision of Palethorpe's white face and straw-coloured hair, then that of a pair of black trouser legs, as he disappeared. He came up again and clutching wildly at the capsized canoe, spluttered and gasped for a moment, then set up a lusty yell for help.

I plucked off my shoes and was on the point of going in to render assistance, when suddenly a glimpse of the face of him who had brought about the disaster—the man in the whiff—brought me to a standstill. It was Uncle Harry!

All idea of rescuing anybody left me forthwith. With visions of Jamaica surging up before me, and forgetful of all else, I crawled behind the bushes, and thence I watched the strugglers in the water.

Uncle Harry, who was a good swimmer, took in the situation at a glance, and naturally turned his first attention to the lady. But Tommy called him to look after Palethorpe, who was drowning, and struck out for land unaided.

From behind the bush I watched her undignified struggles as she crawled up the bank, but I didn't venture out to assist her. She must have been puzzled to account for my abrupt disappearance, and presently as she stood up—looking as a mermaid might look, if mermaids wore twentieth century gowns and twentieth century millinery, and crawled up banks of twentieth century mud—she glanced about her with an expression of surprise that I could easily account for.

"Tommy," I whispered from my shelter, "Tommy—hush!" I added raising my forefinger to my lips as she caught sight of me. "Awfully sorry for you, but I must be off. Send someone to get the canoe out. I'll come back in an hour or so and explain. Run in and get dry things on. Hush!"

She gave me a long puzzled stare as if doubting my sanity, whilst I—keeping the bush between myself and my uncle's range of sight—retreated on all fours until I reached the hedge; then, stooping, I sped along under its protecting cover. At another clump of bushes at about a hundred yards from the scene of the disaster, I halted, and set myself to watch Uncle Harry's rescue of the wretched Palethorpe.

I saw Mrs. Learoyd come hurrying down the lawn, followed by Miss Learoyd, the butler and the gardener. Tommy spoke to the latter pointing to the canoe and the whiff which were floating down stream, and forthwith the man got into the dinghy, which was moored by the steps, and gave chase.

Palethorpe and Tommy proceeded disconsolately and inelegantly towards the house, leaving Uncle Harry on the lawn with Mrs. Learoyd who was talking with great vigour—yet keeping a fair distance from her dripping companion. I didn't know whether she was treating him to a lecture on careless sculling or inviting him to go inside and make an exhibition of himself in some of Papa Learoyd's clothes. Presently however, when the gardener returned with the two boats in tow, the whiff must have been found unfit for use, for after examining it and further talking with Mrs. Learoyd, Uncle Harry got into the dinghy, and taking the sculls, he set out to return to Stollbridge, wet as he was.

When he was quite gone I came out of my ambush and retraced my steps.

But my mind was singularly barren that evening, and when presently Tommy did reappear wearing dry clothes and a face that was serious to the point of anger, I was still without the shadow of an idea.

"So you are there yet, are you?" was her greeting.

"I certainly am here," I answered, seeking refuge in banter, "and it only shows the lack of confidence you have in your own eyesight when you ask the question."

"Dear me! Well, to tell you the truth, I find it hard to believe my eyes after what they showed me this afternoon. You said that you would explain."

"That, my dear Tom, is precisely what I can't do."

She looked down at me as I lay on the grass at her feet, and her eyes were full of surprise and severity.

"You can't? Do you mean to say that you had no motive for acting as you did—for behaving like a coward? Hiding yourself when people were struggling in the water, in danger of drowning?"

"You were not in danger."

"You didn't know that. Anyway, poor Mr. Palethorpe was. What if he had been drowned?"

"I should say from what little I have seen of Mr. Palethorpe that such a contingency might have given rise to considerable rejoicing," I answered, adopting Uncle Harry's best style of satire.

"How very witty!" she commented in scathing accents. Then, after a pause: "It's a good thing," she said, "that there are a few such men as Mr. Pomeroy."

"I don't at all agree with you. If it were not for such men as Mr. Pomeroy who fancy that they can scull, there would have been no accident."

"Oh! You are insufferable! Instead of feeling shame for being a coward, you actually have the audacity to speak slightingly of a brave man."

"I'm not a coward."

"Then what are you? Why did you behave like one?"

Clearly she was ignorant of the fact that Mr. Pomeroy was my uncle and guardian. How then could I confess to her—to her whom I had that day intended to ask to become my wife—that I had hidden because I was afraid of Uncle Harry?"

"Well?" she inquired presently. "Are you going to explain?"

"But, my dear Tommy—"

"Will you explain, or will you not?"

She was very pretty, and while her beauty almost drew the explanation from me, yet at the same time, the knowledge that she would only laugh at me, made me withhold it.

"Good-bye, Mr. Burton," she said, seeing that I did not answer. "I am very disappointed in you, and I don't wish to ever see you again."

And with that she turned on her heel and hurried off towards the house. In an instant I was upon my feet. At all costs I must pocket my pride and tell her what there was to be told, sooner than allow myself to be dismissed in this fashion.

"Tommy!" I cried as I started to follow. But she didn't answer, and at that moment the infernal Palethorpe appeared on the scene. My chance was gone.

When I reached home, I found my uncle walking about the garden, and looking none the worse for his immersion.

"Where the blazes have you been, sir?" was his greeting.

"Been?" I echoed. "Been boating."

"You are not to go boating any more."

"Oh I say, Uncle Harry—"

"Hold your tongue." He stood before me in the most bellicose attitude that I ever saw him assume. "This afternoon I went up the river in a whiff to look for you. I wished to ascertain whether you still followed the undesirable pursuit in which I surprised you some days ago."

"Well, sir," I answered hotly, "I hope you were satisfied with your investigations."

There was an unfortunate inflection in my voice that awakened Uncle Harry's suspicions.

"What do you mean, Charles?"

"That I hope you consider yourself becomingly repaid for your trouble by the bathe you enjoyed."

Uncle Harry winced.

"Charles, you forget yourself. You are impertinent. Did you see the accident?"

"See it? Good Heavens, no," I answered without a blush.

"Then how do you know about it?"

"How? Why the whole river is talking of nothing but Mr. Pomeroy's ducking. I heard about it at Widenham ferry. Pooh. I expect it's all over Stollbridge by now, and you'll probably find a highly coloured paragraph on the subject in to-morrow's 'Chronicle.'"

Uncle Harry flushed for once in his life. He could not endure ridicule.

"It amuses you, does it?" he said savagely. "It amuses you that your uncle is to become the laughing-stock of the place, and that a rag of a provincial newspaper shall advertise his misadventure? But why does this take place? Because I have a jackanapes of a nephew who is not to be trusted, who contracts undesirable acquaintances, with idiotic views of matrimony, and on whom I have, out of a sense of duty to his deceased mother, to keep a sharp eye, so that he shall not make a fool of himself. Very well, sir. Stollbridge may laugh till its sides ache. But it shan't laugh a second time, for I shall pack you off to town next week for good—for good, do you understand?

"Oh, very well," I answered indifferently. I felt indifferent. What did it matter whether I remained in Stollbridge or not? As a matter of fact, I was glad to leave the place. It had ceased to attract me.

Uncle Harry kept his word, and next morning he busied himself making arrangements with some distant relative of ours in London for my removal thither. He went out in the dinghy after lunch, and I naturally supposed that he was taking it back to Holt House. When he returned (afoot) he was late for dinner, and I fully expected that at Holt House he had learned all there was to learn. As, however, he had nothing to say when he returned, I saw that I was mistaken, and that the Learoyds had never thought of connecting Mr. Pomeroy with Charlie Burton.

On the following day, which was Friday, he surprised me by going out in the canoe after lunch. Possibly because he wished to make sure that I didn't use it, and possibly because he wanted to get away from me, as our somewhat strained relations made association painful. Again he was late for dinner. On the Saturday the same programme was observed, and yet again on Sunday.

On the Monday I left for town. My uncle relented somewhat at parting, and whilst giving me the usual valedictory advice, he forebore—I imagined out of delicate consideration for my feelings to caution me in the usual manner against the insidious wiles of woman.

Three days before Christmas—six months after my departure from Stollbridge—there were two letters beside my plate at breakfast that drew my most particular attention.

The first one that I opened was from Uncle Harry and contained a generous cheque for a Christmas card. Its contents amazed me.

My dear Charlie,—I want you to come and spend Christmas with me at Stollbridge. It will be my last bachelor Christmas, for even your uncle has fallen a victim to those snares against which he took such pains to warn you. This may surprise you, but not half so much as will the letter your future aunt is writing to you.
—Your fond Uncle—HARRY

The other letter which I tore open with trembling fingers ran:

My dear Charlie,—Will you be very much astonished to hear that I am going to marry your Uncle Harry next spring? Isn't it funny? I only learned the other day that he was your uncle, and I was amazed. It all began that day he upset us and saved Mr. Palethorpe's life. He became a constant visitor after that. He happened to speak of you the other day, and of course I was very inquisitive, and—well I understood at last why you acted so curiously on the day of the accident. My poor Charlie, I was very horrid with you that day, and I haven't seen you since. Never mind, I'll make you a splendid aunt.

Your uncle tells me that you are coming to Stollbridge for Christmas. You must come and see me.
—Yours affectionately,

This story appears on The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini web site.
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