Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter VIII.

The Norfolk Broads.

The little group gathered together in Major Milroy’s parlor to wait for the carriages from Thorpe Ambrose would hardly have conveyed the idea, to any previously uninstructed person introduced among them, of a party assembled in expectation of a picnic. They were almost dull enough, as far as outward appearances went, to have been a party assembled in expectation of a marriage.

Even Miss Milroy herself, though conscious, of looking her best in her bright muslin dress and her gayly feathered new hat, was at this inauspicious moment Miss Milroy under a cloud. Although Allan’s note had assured her, in Allan’s strongest language, that the one great object of reconciling the governess’s arrival with the celebration of the picnic was an object achieved, the doubt still remained whether the plan proposed — whatever it might be — would meet with her father’s approval. In a word, Miss Milroy declined to feel sure of her day’s pleasure until the carriage made its appearance and took her from the door. The major, on his side, arrayed for the festive occasion in a tight blue frock-coat which he had not worn for years, and threatened with a whole long day of separation from his old friend and comrade the clock, was a man out of his element, if ever such a man existed yet. As for the friends who had been asked at Allan’s request — the widow lady (otherwise Mrs. Pentecost) and her son (the Reverend Samuel) in delicate health — two people less capable, apparently of adding to the hilarity of the day could hardly have been discovered in the length and breadth of all England. A young man who plays his part in society by looking on in green spectacles, and listening with a sickly smile, may be a prodigy of intellect and a mine of virtue, but he is hardly, perhaps, the right sort of man to have at a picnic. An old lady afflicted with deafness, whose one inexhaustible subject of interest is the subject of her son, and who (on the happily rare occasions when that son opens his lips) asks everybody eagerly, “What does my boy say?” is a person to be pitied in respect of her infirmities, and a person to be admired in respect of her maternal devotedness, but not a person, if the thing could possibly be avoided, to take to a picnic. Such a man, nevertheless, was the Reverend Samuel Pentecost, and such a woman was the Reverend Samuel’s mother; and in the dearth of any other producible guests, there they were, engaged to eat, drink, and be merry for the day at Mr. Armadale’s pleasure party to the Norfolk Broads.

The arrival of Allan, with his faithful follower, Pedgift Junior, at his heels, roused the flagging spirits of the party at the cottage. The plan for enabling the governess to join the picnic, if she arrived that day, satisfied even Major Milroy’s anxiety to show all proper attention to the lady who was coming into his house. After writing the necessary note of apology and invitation, and addressing it in her very best handwriting to the new governess, Miss Milroy ran upstairs to say good-by to her mother, and returned with a smiling face and a side look of relief directed at her father, to announce that there was nothing now to keep any of them a moment longer indoors. The company at once directed their steps to the garden gate, and were there met face to face by the second great difficulty of the day. How were the six persons of the picnic to be divided between the two open carriages that were in waiting for them?

Here, again, Pedgift Junior exhibited his invaluable faculty of contrivance. This highly cultivated young man possessed in an eminent degree an accomplishment more or less peculiar to all the young men of the age we live in: he was perfectly capable of taking his pleasure without forgetting his business. Such a client as the Master of Thorpe Ambrose fell but seldom in his father’s way, and to pay special but unobtrusive attention to Allan all through the day was the business of which young Pedgift, while proving himself to be the life and soul of the picnic, never once lost sight from the beginning of the merry-making to the end. He had detected the state of affairs between Miss Milroy and Allan at glance, and he at once provided for his client’s inclinations in that quarter by offering, in virtue of his local knowledge, to lead the way in the first carriage, and by asking Major Milroy and the curate if they would do him the honor of accompanying him.

“We shall pass a very interesting place to a military man, sir,” said young Pedgift, addressing the major, with his happy and unblushing confidence —“the remains of a Roman encampment. And my father, sir, who is a subscriber,” proceeded this rising lawyer, turning to the curate, “wished me to ask your opinion of the new Infant School buildings at Little Gill Beck. Would you kindly give it me as we go along?” He opened the carriage door, and helped in the major and the curate before they could either of them start any difficulties. The necessary result followed. Allan and Miss Milroy rode together in the same carriage, with the extra convenience of a deaf old lady in attendance to keep the squire’s compliments within the necessary limits.

Never yet had Allan enjoyed such an interview with Miss Milroy as the interview he now obtained on the road to the Broads.

The dear old lady, after a little anecdote or two on the subject of her son, did the one thing wanting to secure the perfect felicity of her two youthful companions: she became considerately blind for the occasion, as well as deaf. A quarter of an hour after the carriage left the major’s cottage, the poor old soul, reposing on snug cushions, and fanned by a fine summer air, fell peaceably asleep. Allan made love, and Miss Milroy sanctioned the manufacture of that occasionally precious article of human commerce, sublimely indifferent on both sides to a solemn bass accompaniment on two notes, played by the curate’s mother’s unsuspecting nose. The only interruption to the love-making (the snoring, being a thing more grave and permanent in its nature, was not interrupted at all) came at intervals from the carriage ahead. Not satisfied with having the major’s Roman encampment and the curate’s Infant Schools on his mind, Pedgift Junior rose erect from time to time in his place, and, respectfully hailing the hindmost vehicle, directed Allan’s attention, in a shrill tenor voice, and with an excellent choice of language, to objects of interest on the road. The only way to quiet him was to answer, which Allan invariably did by shouting back, “Yes, beautiful,” upon which young Pedgift disappeared again in the recesses of the leading carriage, and took up the Romans and the Infants where he had left them last.

The scene through which the picnic party was now passing merited far more attention than it received either from Allan or Allan’s friends.

An hour’s steady driving from the major’s cottage had taken young Armadale and his guests beyond the limits of Midwinter’s solitary walk, and was now bringing them nearer and nearer to one of the strangest and loveliest aspects of nature which the inland landscape, not of Norfolk only, but of all England, can show. Little by little the face of the country began to change as the carriages approached the remote and lonely district of the Broads. The wheat fields and turnip fields became perceptibly fewer, and the fat green grazing grounds on either side grew wider and wider in their smooth and sweeping range. Heaps of dry rushes and reeds, laid up for the basket-maker and the thatcher, began to appear at the road-side. The old gabled cottages of the early part of the drive dwindled and disappeared, and huts with mud walls rose in their place. With the ancient church towers and the wind and water mills, which had hitherto been the only lofty objects seen over the low marshy flat, there now rose all round the horizon, gliding slow and distant behind fringes of pollard willows, the sails of invisible boats moving on invisible waters. All the strange and startling anomalies presented by an inland agricultural district, isolated from other districts by its intricate surrounding network of pools and streams — holding its communications and carrying its produce by water instead of by land — began to present themselves in closer and closer succession. Nets appeared on cottage pailings; little flat-bottomed boats lay strangely at rest among the flowers in cottage gardens; farmers’ men passed to and fro clad in composite costume of the coast and the field, in sailors’ hats, and fishermen’s boots, and plowmen’s smocks; and even yet the low-lying labyrinth of waters, embosomed in its mystery of solitude, was a hidden labyrinth still. A minute more, and the carriages took a sudden turn from the hard high-road into a little weedy lane. The wheels ran noiseless on the damp and spongy ground. A lonely outlying cottage appeared with its litter of nets and boats. A few yards further on, and the last morsel of firm earth suddenly ended in a tiny creek and quay. One turn more to the end of the quay — and there, spreading its great sheet of water, far and bright and smooth, on the right hand and the left — there, as pure in its spotless blue, as still in its heavenly peacefulness, as the summer sky above it, was the first of the Norfolk Broads.

The carriages stopped, the love-making broke off, and the venerable Mrs. Pentecost, recovering the use of her senses at a moment’s notice, fixed her eyes sternly on Allan the instant she woke.

“I see in your face, Mr. Armadale,” said the old lady, sharply, “that you think I have been asleep.”

The consciousness of guilt acts differently on the two sexes. In nine cases out of ten, it is a much more manageable consciousness with a woman than with a man. All the confusion, on this occasion, was on the man’s side. While Allan reddened and looked embarrassed, the quick-witted Miss Milroy instantly embraced the old lady with a burst of innocent laughter. “He is quite incapable, dear Mrs. Pentecost,” said the little hypocrite, “of anything so ridiculous as thinking you have been asleep!”

“All I wish Mr. Armadale to know,” pursued the old lady, still suspicious of Allan, “is, that my head being giddy, I am obliged to close my eyes in a carriage. Closing the eyes, Mr. Armadale, is one thing, and going to sleep is another. Where is my son?”

The Reverend Samuel appeared silently at the carriage door, and assisted his mother to get out (“Did you enjoy the drive, Sammy?” asked the old lady. “Beautiful scenery, my dear, wasn’t it?”) Young Pedgift, on whom the arrangements for exploring the Broads devolved, hustled about, giving his orders to the boatman. Major Milroy, placid and patient, sat apart on an overturned punt, and privately looked at his watch. Was it past noon already? More than an hour past. For the first time, for many a long year, the famous clock at home had struck in an empty workshop. Time had lifted his wonderful scythe, and the corporal and his men had relieved guard, with no master’s eye to watch their performances, with no master’s hand to encourage them to do their best. The major sighed as he put his watch back in his pocket. “I’m afraid I’m too old for this sort of thing,” thought the good man, looking about him dreamily. “I don’t find I enjoy it as much as I thought I should. When are we going on the water, I wonder? Where’s Neelie?”

Neelie — more properly Miss Milroy — was behind one of the carriages with the promoter of the picnic. They were immersed in the interesting subject of their own Christian names, and Allan was as near a pointblank proposal of marriage as it is well possible for a thoughtless young gentleman of two-and-twenty to be.

“Tell me the truth,” said Miss Milroy, with her eyes modestly riveted on the ground. “When you first knew what my name was, you didn’t like it, did you?”

“I like everything that belongs to you,” rejoined Allan, vigorously. “I think Eleanor is a beautiful name; and yet, I don’t know why, I think the major made an improvement when he changed it to Neelie.”

“I can tell you why, Mr. Armadale,” said the major’s daughter, with great gravity. ‘There are some unfortunate people in this world whose names are — how can I express it? — whose names are misfits. Mine is a misfit. I don’t blame my parents, for of course it was impossible to know when I was a baby how I should grow up. But as things are, I and my name don’t fit each other. When you hear a young lady called Eleanor, you think of a tall, beautiful, interesting creature directly — the very opposite of me! With my personal appearance, Eleanor sounds ridiculous; and Neelie, as you yourself remarked, is just the thing. No! no! don’t say any more; I’m tired of the subject. I’ve got another name in my head, if we must speak of names, which is much better worth talking about than mine.”

She stole a glance at her companion which said plainly enough, “The name is yours.” Allan advanced a step nearer to her, and lowered his voice, without the slightest necessity, to a mysterious whisper. Miss Milroy instantly resumed her investigation of the ground. She looked at it with such extraordinary interest that a geologist might have suspected her of scientific flirtation with the superficial strata.

“What name are you thinking of?” asked Allan.

Miss Milroy addressed her answer, in the form of a remark, to the superficial strata — and let them do what they liked with it, in their capacity of conductors of sound. “If I had been a man,” she said, “I should so like to have been called Allan!”

She felt his eyes on her as she spoke, and, turning her head aside, became absorbed in the graining of the panel at the back of the carriage. “How beautiful it is!” she exclaimed, with a sudden outburst of interest in the vast subject of varnish. “I wonder how they do it?”

Man persists, and woman yields. Allan declined to shift the ground from love-making to coach-making. Miss Milroy dropped the subject.

“Call me by my name, if you really like it,” he whispered, persuasively. “Call me ‘Allan’ for once; just to try.”

She hesitated with a heightened color and a charming smile, and shook her head. “I couldn’t just yet,” she answered, softly.

“May I call you Neelie? Is it too soon?”

She looked at him again, with a sudden disturbance about the bosom of her dress, and a sudden flash of tenderness in her dark-gray eyes.

“You know best,” she said, faintly, in a whisper.

The inevitable answer was on the tip of Allan’s tongue. At the very instant, however, when he opened his lips, the abhorrent high tenor of Pedgift Junior, shouting for “Mr. Armadale,” rang cheerfully through the quiet air. At the same moment, from the other side of the carriage, the lurid spectacles of the Reverend Samuel showed themselves officiously on the search; and the voice of the Reverend Samuel’s mother (who had, with great dexterity, put the two ideas of the presence of water and a sudden movement among the company together) inquired distractedly if anybody was drowned? Sentiment flies and Love shudders at all demonstrations of the noisy kind. Allan said: “Damn it,” and rejoined young Pedgift. Miss Milroy sighed, and took refuge with her father.

“I’ve done it, Mr. Armadale!” cried young Pedgift, greeting his patron gayly. “We can all go on the water together; I’ve got the biggest boat on the Broads. The little skiffs,” he added, in a lower tone, as he led the way to the quay steps, “besides being ticklish and easily upset, won’t hold more than two, with the boatman; and the major told me he should feel it his duty to go with his daughter, if we all separated in different boats. I thought that would hardly do, sir,” pursued Pedgift Junior, with a respectfully sly emphasis on the words. “And, besides, if we had put the old lady into a skiff, with her weight (sixteen stone if she’s a pound), we might have had her upside down in the water half her time, which would have occasioned delay, and thrown what you call a damp on the proceedings. Here’s the boat, Mr. Armadale. What do you think of it?”

The boat added one more to the strangely anomalous objects which appeared at the Broads. It was nothing less than a stout old lifeboat, passing its last declining years on the smooth fresh water, after the stormy days of its youth time on the wild salt sea. A comfortable little cabin for the use of fowlers in the winter season had been built amidships, and a mast and sail adapted for inland navigation had been fitted forward. There was room enough and to spare for the guests, the dinner, and the three men in charge. Allan clapped his faithful lieutenant approvingly on the shoulder; and even Mrs. Pentecost, when the whole party were comfortably established on board, took a comparatively cheerful view of the prospects of the picnic. “If anything happens,” said the old lady, addressing the company generally, “there’s one comfort for all of us. My son can swim.”

The boat floated out from the creek into the placid waters of the Broad, and the full beauty of the scene opened on the view.

On the northward and westward, as the boat reached the middle of the lake, the shore lay clear and low in the sunshine, fringed darkly at certain points by rows of dwarf trees; and dotted here and there, in the opener spaces, with windmills and reed-thatched cottages, of puddled mud. Southward, the great sheet of water narrowed gradually to a little group of close-nestling islands which closed the prospect; while to the east a long, gently undulating line of reeds followed the windings of the Broad, and shut out all view of the watery wastes beyond. So clear and so light was the summer air that the one cloud in the eastern quarter of the heaven was the smoke cloud left by a passing steamer three miles distant and more on the invisible sea. When the voices of the pleasure party were still, not a sound rose, far or near, but the faint ripple at the bows, as the men, with slow, deliberate strokes of their long poles, pressed the boat forward softly over the shallow water. The world and the world’s turmoil seemed left behind forever on the land; the silence was the silence of enchantment — the delicious interflow of the soft purity of the sky and the bright tranquillity of the lake.

Established in perfect comfort in the boat — the major and his daughter on one side, the curate and his mother on the other, and Allan and young Pedgift between the two — the water party floated smoothly toward the little nest of islands at the end of the Broad. Miss Milroy was in raptures; Allan was delighted; and the major for once forgot his clock. Every one felt pleasurably, in their different ways, the quiet and beauty of the scene. Mrs. Pentecost, in her way, felt it like a clairvoyant — with closed eyes.

“Look behind you, Mr. Armadale,” whispered young Pedgift. “I think the parson’s beginning to enjoy himself.”

An unwonted briskness — portentous apparently of coming speech — did certainly at that moment enliven the curate’s manner. He jerked his head from side to side like a bird; he cleared his throat, and clasped his hands, and looked with a gentle interest at the company. Getting into spirits seemed, in the case of this excellent person, to be alarmingly like getting into the pulpit.

“Even in this scene of tranquillity,” said the Reverend Samuel, coming out softly with his first contribution to the society in the shape of a remark, “the Christian mind — led, so to speak, from one extreme to another — is forcibly recalled to the unstable nature of all earthly enjoyments. How if this calm should not last? How if the winds rose and the waters became agitated?”

“You needn’t alarm yourself about that, sir,” said young Pedgift; “June’s the fine season here — and you can swim.”

Mrs. Pentecost (mesmerically affected, in all probability, by the near neighborhood of her son) opened her eyes suddenly and asked, with her customary eagerness. “What does my boy say?”

The Reverend Samuel repeated his words in the key that suited his mother’s infirmity. The old lady nodded in high approval, and pursued her son’s train of thought through the medium of a quotation.

“Ah!” sighed Mrs. Pentecost, with infinite relish, “He rides the whirlwind, Sammy, and directs the storm!”

“Noble words!” said the Reverend Samuel. “Noble and consoling words!”

“I say,” whispered Allan, “if he goes on much longer in that way, what’s to be done?”

“I told you, papa, it was a risk to ask them,” added Miss Milroy, in another whisper.

“My dear!” remonstrated the major. “We knew nobody else in the neighborhood, and, as Mr. Armadale kindly suggested our bringing our friends, what could we do?”

“We can’t upset the boat,” remarked young Pedgift, with sardonic gravity. “It’s a lifeboat, unfortunately. May I venture to suggest putting something into the reverend gentleman’s mouth, Mr. Armadale? It’s close on three o’clock. What do you say to ringing the dinner-bell, sir?”

Never was the right man more entirely in the right place than Pedgift Junior at the picnic. In ten minutes more the boat was brought to a stand-still among the reeds; the Thorpe Ambrose hampers were unpacked on the roof of the cabin; and the current of the curate’s eloquence was checked for the day.

How inestimably important in its moral results — and therefore how praiseworthy in itself — is the act of eating and drinking! The social virtues center in the stomach. A man who is not a better husband, father, and brother after dinner than before is, digestively speaking, an incurably vicious man. What hidden charms of character disclose themselves, what dormant amiabilities awaken, when our common humanity gathers together to pour out the gastric juice! At the opening of the hampers from Thorpe Ambrose, sweet Sociability (offspring of the happy union of Civilization and Mrs. Gripper) exhaled among the boating party, and melted in one friendly fusion the discordant elements of which that party had hitherto been composed. Now did the Reverend Samuel Pentecost, whose light had hitherto been hidden under a bushel, prove at last that he could do something by proving that he could eat. Now did Pedgift Junior shine brighter than ever he had shone yet in gems of caustic humor and exquisite fertilities of resource. Now did the squire, and the squire’s charming guest, prove the triple connection between Champagne that sparkles, Love that grows bolder, and Eyes whose vocabulary is without the word No. Now did cheerful old times come back to the major’s memory, and cheerful old stories not told for years find their way to the major’s lips. And now did Mrs. Pentecost, coming out wakefully in the whole force of her estimable maternal character, seize on a supplementary fork, and ply that useful instrument incessantly between the choicest morsels in the whole round of dishes, and the few vacant places left available on the Reverend Samuel’s plate. “Don’t laugh at my son,” cried the old lady, observing the merriment which her proceedings produced among the company. “It’s my fault, poor dear — I make him eat!” And there are men in this world who, seeing virtues such as these developed at the table, as they are developed nowhere else, can, nevertheless, rank the glorious privilege of dining with the smallest of the diurnal personal worries which necessity imposes on mankind — with buttoning your waistcoat, for example, or lacing your stays! Trust no such monster as this with your tender secrets, your loves and hatreds, your hopes and fears. His heart is uncorrected by his stomach, and the social virtues are not in him.

The last mellow hours of the day and the first cool breezes of the long summer evening had met before the dishes were all laid waste, and the bottles as empty as bottles should be. This point in the proceedings attained, the picnic party looked lazily at Pedgift Junior to know what was to be done next. That inexhaustible functionary was equal as ever to all the calls on him. He had a new amusement ready before the quickest of the company could so much as ask him what that amusement was to be.

“Fond of music on the water, Miss Milroy?” he asked, in his airiest and pleasantest manner.

Miss Milroy adored music, both on the water and the land — always excepting the one case when she was practicing the art herself on the piano at home.

“We’ll get out of the reeds first,” said young Pedgift. He gave his orders to the boatmen, dived briskly into the little cabin, and reappeared with a concertina in his hand. “Neat, Miss Milroy, isn’t it?” he observed, pointing to his initials, inlaid on the instrument in mother-of-pearl. “My name’s Augustus, like my father’s. Some of my friends knock off the ‘A,’ and call me ‘Gustus Junior.’ A small joke goes a long way among friends, doesn’t it, Mr. Armadale? I sing a little to my own accompaniment, ladies and gentlemen; and, if quite agreeable, I shall be proud and happy to do my best.”

“Stop!” cried Mrs. Pentecost; “I dote on music.”

With this formidable announcement, the old lady opened a prodigious leather bag, from which she never parted night or day, and took out an ear-trumpet of the old-fashioned kind — something between a key-bugle and a French horn. “I don’t care to use the thing generally,” explained Mrs. Pentecost, “because I’m afraid of its making me deafer than ever. But I can’t and won’t miss the music. I dote on music. If you’ll hold the other end, Sammy, I’ll stick it in my ear. Neelie, my dear, tell him to begin.”

Young Pedgift was troubled with no nervous hesitation. He began at once, not with songs of the light and modern kind, such as might have been expected from an amateur of his age and character, but with declamatory and patriotic bursts of poetry, set to the bold and blatant music which the people of England loved dearly at the earlier part of the present century, and which, whenever they can get it, they love dearly still. “The Death of Marmion,” “The Battle of the Baltic,” “The Bay of Biscay,” “Nelson,” under various vocal aspects, as exhibited by the late Braham — these were the songs in which the roaring concertina and strident tenor of Gustus Junior exulted together. “Tell me when you’re tired, ladies and gentlemen,” said the minstrel solicitor. “There’s no conceit about me. Will you have a little sentiment by way of variety? Shall I wind up with ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ and ‘Poor Mary Anne’?”

Having favored his audience with those two cheerful melodies, young Pedgift respectfully requested the rest of the company to follow his vocal example in turn, offering, in every case, to play “a running accompaniment” impromptu, if the singer would only be so obliging as to favor him with the key-note.

“Go on, somebody!” cried Mrs. Pentecost, eagerly. “I tell you again, I dote on music. We haven’t had half enough yet, have we, Sammy?”

The Reverend Samuel made no reply. The unhappy man had reasons of his own — not exactly in his bosom, but a little lower — for remaining silent, in the midst of the general hilarity and the general applause. Alas for humanity! Even maternal love is alloyed with mortal fallibility. Owing much already to his excellent mother, the Reverend Samuel was now additionally indebted to her for a smart indigestion.

Nobody, however, noticed as yet the signs and tokens of internal revolution in the curate’s face. Everybody was occupied in entreating everybody else to sing. Miss Milroy appealed to the founder of the feast. “Do sing something, Mr. Armadale,” she said; “I should so like to hear you!”

“If you once begin, sir,” added the cheerful Pedgift, “you’ll find it get uncommonly easy as you go on. Music is a science which requires to be taken by the throat at starting.”

“With all my heart,” said Allan, in his good-humored way. “I know lots of tunes, but the worst of it is, the words escape me. I wonder if I can remember one of Moore’s Melodies? My poor mother used to be fond of teaching me Moore’s Melodies when I was a boy.”

“Whose melodies?” asked Mrs. Pentecost. “Moore’s? Aha! I know Tom Moore by heart.”

“Perhaps in that case you will he good enough to help me, ma’am, if my memory breaks down,” rejoined Allan. “I’ll take the easiest melody in the whole collection, if you’ll allow me. Everybody knows it —‘Eveleen’s Bower.’ ”

“I’m familiar, in a general sort of way, with the national melodies of England, Scotland, and Ireland,” said Pedgift Junior. “I’ll accompany you, sir, with the greatest pleasure. This is the sort of thing, I think.” He seated himself cross-legged on the roof of the cabin, and burst into a complicated musical improvisation wonderful to hear — a mixture of instrumental flourishes and groans; a jig corrected by a dirge, and a dirge enlivened by a jig. “That’s the sort of thing,” said young Pedgift, with his smile of supreme confidence. “Fire away, sir!”

Mrs. Pentecost elevated her trumpet, and Allan elevated his voice. “Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen’s Bower —” He stopped; the accompaniment stopped; the audience waited. “It’s a most extraordinary thing,” said Allan; “I thought I had the next line on the tip of my tongue, and it seems to have escaped me. I’ll begin again, if you have no objection. ‘Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen’s Bower —’ ”

“‘The lord of the valley with false vows came,’” said Mrs. Pentecost.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Allan. “Now I shall get on smoothly. ‘Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen’s Bower, the lord of the valley with false vows came. The moon was shining bright —’”

“No!” said Mrs. Pentecost.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” remonstrated Allan. “‘The moon was shining bright —’ ”

“The moon wasn’t doing anything of the kind,” said Mrs. Pentecost.

Pedgift Junior, foreseeing a dispute, persevered sotto voce with the accompaniment, in the interests of harmony.

“Moore’s own words, ma’am,” said Allan, “in my mother’s copy of the Melodies.”

“Your mother’s copy was wrong,” retorted Mrs. Pentecost. “Didn’t I tell you just now that I knew Tom Moore by heart?”

Pedgift Junior’s peace-making concertina still flourished and groaned in the minor key.

“Well, what did the moon do?” asked Allan, in despair.

“What the moon ought to have done, sir, or Tom Moore wouldn’t have written it so,” rejoined Mrs. Pentecost. “‘The moon hid her light from the heaven that night, and wept behind her clouds o’er the maiden’s shame!’ I wish that young man would leave off playing,” added Mrs. Pentecost, venting her rising irritation on Gustus Junior. “I’ve had enough of him — he tickles my ears.”

“Proud, I’m sure, ma’am,” said the unblushing Pedgift. “The whole science of music consists in tickling the ears.”

“We seem to be drifting into a sort of argument,” remarked Major Milroy, placidly. “Wouldn’t it be better if Mr. Armadale went on with his song?”

“Do go on, Mr. Armadale!” added the major’s daughter. “Do go on, Mr. Pedgift!”

“One of them doesn’t know the words, and the other doesn’t know the music,” said Mrs. Pentecost. “Let them go on if they can!”

“Sorry to disappoint you, ma’am,” said Pedgift Junior; “I’m ready to go on myself to any extent. Now, Mr. Armadale!”

Allan opened his lips to take up the unfinished melody where he had last left it. Before he could utter a note, the curate suddenly rose, with a ghastly face, and a hand pressed convulsively over the middle region of his waistcoat.

“What’s the matter?” cried the whole boating party in chorus.

“I am exceedingly unwell,” said the Reverend Samuel Pentecost. The boat was instantly in a state of confusion. “Eveleen’s Bower” expired on Allan’s lips, and even the irrepressible concertina of Pedgift was silenced at last. The alarm proved to be quite needless. Mrs. Pentecost’s son possessed a mother, and that mother had a bag. In two seconds the art of medicine occupied the place left vacant in the attention of the company by the art of music.

“Rub it gently, Sammy,” said Mrs. Pentecost. “I’ll get out the bottles and give you a dose. It’s his poor stomach, major. Hold my trumpet, somebody — and stop the boat. You take that bottle, Neelie, my dear; and you take this one, Mr. Armadale; and give them to me as I want them. Ah, poor dear, I know what’s the matter with him! Want of power here, major — cold, acid, and flabby. Ginger to warm him; soda to correct him; sal volatile to hold him up. There, Sammy! drink it before it settles; and then go and lie down, my dear, in that dog-kennel of a place they call the cabin. No more music!” added Mrs. Pentecost, shaking her forefinger at the proprietor of the concertina —“unless it’s a hymn, and that I don’t object to.”

Nobody appearing to be in a fit frame of mind for singing a hymn, the all-accomplished Pedgift drew upon his stores of local knowledge, and produced a new idea. The course of the boat was immediately changed under his direction. In a few minutes more, the company found themselves in a little island creek, with a lonely cottage at the far end of it, and a perfect forest of reeds closing the view all round them. “What do you say, ladies and gentlemen, to stepping on shore and seeing what a reed-cutter’s cottage looks like?” suggested young Pedgift.

“We say yes, to be sure,” answered Allan. “I think our spirits have been a little dashed by Mr. Pentecost’s illness and Mrs. Pentecost’s bag,” he added, in a whisper to Miss Milroy. “A change of this sort is the very thing we want to set us all going again.”

He and young Pedgift handed Miss Milroy out of the boat. The major followed. Mrs. Pentecost sat immovable as the Egyptian Sphinx, with her bag on her knees, mounting guard over “Sammy” in the cabin.

“We must keep the fun going, sir,” said Allan, as he helped the major over the side of the boat. “We haven’t half done yet with the enjoyment of the day.”

His voice seconded his hearty belief in his own prediction to such good purpose that even Mrs. Pentecost heard him, and ominously shook her head.

“Ah!” sighed the curate’s mother, “if you were as old as I am, young gentleman, you wouldn’t feel quite so sure of the enjoyment of the day!”

So, in rebuke of the rashness of youth, spoke the caution of age. The negative view is notoriously the safe view, all the world over, and the Pentecost philosophy is, as a necessary consequence, generally in the right.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30