The third of February was a day so bland and of such spring-like texture that the quickened blood demanded adventure.
This was why Tony Croom sent an early wire and set out at noon from Bablock Hythe in his old but newly-acquired two-seater. The car was not his ‘dream,’ but it could do fifty at the pinch he liked to give it. He took the nearest bridge, ran for Abingdon, and on past Benson to Henley. There he stopped to snatch a sandwich and ‘fill up,’ and again on the bridge for a glimpse at the sunlit river softly naked below the bare woods. From there on he travelled by the dock, timing himself to reach Melton Mews at two o’clock.
Clare was not ready, having only just come in. He sat in the downstairs room, now furnished with three chairs, a small table, of quaint design, cheap owing to the slump in antiques, and an amethyst-coloured chased decanter containing sloe gin. Nearly half an hour he sat there before she came down the spiral stairs in fawn-coloured tweeds and hat, with a calfskin fur coat over her arm.
“Well, my dear! Sorry to have kept you. Where are we going?”
“I thought you might care to have a look at Bablock Hythe. Then we might come back through Oxford, have high tea there, wander about a bit among the colleges, and be back here before eleven. That do?”
“Perfect. And where will you sleep?”
“I? Oh! tool along home again. I’d be there by one.”
“Poor Tony! A hard day!”
“Oh! Not two hundred and fifty miles. You won’t want your fur on yet, the car doesn’t open — worse luck.”
They passed out at the westward mouth of the mews, narrowly missing a motor cyclist, and slid on towards the Park.
“She goes well, Tony.”
“Yes, she’s an easy old thing, but I always feel she might bust at any moment. Stapylton gave her a terrible doing. And I don’t like a light-coloured car.”
Clare leaned back, by the smile on her lips she was enjoying herself.
There was little conversation on that, the first long drive they had taken together. Both had the youthful love of speed, and young Croom got every ounce out of the car that the traffic would permit. They reached the last crossing of the river under two hours.
“Here’s the inn where I dig,” he said presently. “Would you like tea?”
“Not wise, my dear. When I’ve seen the boxes and paddocks, we’ll get out of here to where you’re not known.”
“I must just show you the river.”
Through its poplars and willow trees the white way of the river gleamed, faintly goldened by the sunken sun. They got out to look. The lamb’s tails on the hazels were very forward.
Clare twisted off a spray.
“False spring. There’s a lot to come before the real spring yet.”
A current of chilly air came stealing down the river, and mist could be seen rising on the meadows beyond.
“Only a ferry here, then, Tony?”
“Yes, and a short cut into Oxford the other side, about five miles. I’ve walked it once or twice: rather nice.”
“When the blossom and meadow flowers come, it’ll be jolly. Come along! Just show me where the paddocks lie, and we’ll get on to Oxford.”
They got back into the car.
“Won’t you see the boxes?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll wait till the mares are here. There’s a subtle distinction between your bringing me to look at boxes and my coming to look at mares. Are they really from Nejd?”
“So Muskham swears. I shall believe or not when I’ve seen the syces in charge of them.”
“Two bays and a chestnut.”
The three paddocks sloped slightly towards the river and were sheltered by a long spinney.
“Ideal drainage and all the sun there is. The boxes are round that corner under the spinney. There’s a good deal to do still; we’re putting in a heater.”
“It’s very quiet here.”
“Practically no cars on this road; motor cycles now and then — there’s one now.”
A cycle came sputtering towards them, stopped, wrenched round, and went sputtering back.
“Noisy brutes!” murmured young Croom. “However, the mares will have had their baptism by the time they get here.”
“What a change for them, poor dears!”
“They’re all to be golden something: Golden Sand, Golden Houri, and Golden Hind, these three.”
“I didn’t know Jack Muskham was a poet.”
“It stops at horses, I think.”
“Really marvellous, the stillness, Tony!”
“Past five. The men have stopped work on my cottages — they’re converting.”
“How many rooms?”
“Four. Bedroom, sitting-room, kitchen, bathroom. But one could build on.”
He looked at her intently. But her face was averted.
“Well,” he said abruptly, “all aboard. We’ll get to Oxford before dark.”
Oxford — between lights, like all towns, at its worst — seemed to say: “Doomed to villadom, cars, and modernity, I am beyond your aid.”
To those two, hungry and connected with Cambridge, it offered little attraction till they were seated in the Mitre before anchovy sandwiches, boiled eggs, toast, muffins, scones, jam, and a large pot of tea. With every mouthful the romance of Oxford became apparent. This old inn, where they alone were eating, the shining fire, red curtains being drawn, the unexpected cosy solitude, prepared them to find it ‘marvellous’ when they should set forth. A motor cyclist in leather overalls looked in and went away. Three undergraduates chirped in the doorway, selected a table for dinner, and passed on. Now and again a waitress renewed their toast or fiddled at some table. They were deliciously alone. Not till past seven did they rise.
“Let’s scout,” said Clare. “We’ve lots of time.”
The Oxford world was dining, and the streets were almost empty. They wandered at random, choosing the narrower ways and coming suddenly on colleges and long old walls. Nothing seemed modern now. The Past had them by the throat. Dark towers, and old half-lit stone-work; winding, built in, glimpsy passages; the sudden spacious half-lighted gloom of a chanced-on quadrangle; chiming of clocks, and the feeling of a dark and old and empty town that was yet brimming with hidden modern life and light, kept them almost speechless; and, since they had never known their way, they were at once lost.
Young Croom had entwined her arm in his, and kept his step in time to hers. Neither of them was romantic, but both just then had a feeling as if they had wandered into the maze of history.
“I rather wish,” said Clare, “that I’d been up here or at Cambridge.”
“One never got a nooky feeling like this at Cambridge. In the dark this is much more mediæval. There the colleges are together in a line. The ‘backs’ lay over anything they’ve got here, but the old atmosphere here is far stronger.”
“I believe I could have enjoyed the past. Palfreys and buff jerkins. You’d have looked divine, Tony, in a buff jerkin, and one of those caps with a long green feather.”
“The present with you is good enough for me. This is the longest time we’ve ever spent together without a break.”
“Don’t get soppy. We’re here to look at Oxford. Which way shall we go now?”
“All the same to me,” said his remote voice.
“Hurt? That’s a big college! Let’s go in.”
“They’ll be coming out of hall. Past eight; we’d better stick to the streets.”
They wandered up the Cornmarket to the Broad, stood before the statues on the right, then turned into a dim square with a circular building in the centre, a church at the end, and colleges for its side walls.
“This must be the heart,” said Clare. “Oxford certainly has its points. Whatever they do to the outside, I don’t see how they can spoil all this.”
With mysterious suddenness the town had come to life; youths were passing with short gowns over their arms, flapping free, or wound round their necks. Of one of them young Croom asked where they were.
“That’s the Radcliffe. This is Brasenose, and the High’s down there.”
“And the Mitre?”
“To your right.”
“Not at all.”
He bent his uncapped head towards Clare and flapped on.
“Let’s go in and have cocktails.”
A motorist, well capped and leathered, standing by his cycle, looked after them intently as they went into the hotel.
After cocktails and biscuits, they came out feeling, as young Croom said: “Bright and early. We’ll go back over Magdalen Bridge, through Benson, Dorchester, and Henley.”
“Stop on the bridge, Tony. I want to see my name-sake.”
The bridge lights threw splashes on the Cherwell’s inky stream, the loom of Magdalen lay solid on the dark, and away towards the Christchurch meadows, a few lamps shone. Whence they had come the broad, half-lighted strip of street ran between glimpsed grey frontages and doorways. And the little river over which they were at a standstill seemed to flow with secrecy.
“The ‘Char’ they call it, don’t they?”
“In the summer I shall have a punt, Clare. The upper river’s even better than this.”
“Will you teach me to punt?”
“Nearly ten! Well, I’ve enjoyed that, Tony.”
He gave her a long side-glance and started the engine. It seemed as if he must always be ‘moving on’ with her. Would there never be a long and perfect stop?
“Not really. That was a mighty strong cocktail. If you’re tired I could drive.”
“Tired? Gracious, no! I was only thinking that every mile takes me that much away from you.”
In the dark a road seems longer than by day, and so different. A hundred unremembered things appear — hedges, stacks, trees, houses, turnings. Even the villages seem different. In Dorchester they stopped to make sure of the right turning; a motor cyclist passed them, and young Croom called out: “To Henley?”
They came to another village.
“This,” said young Croom, “must be Nettlebed. Nothing till Henley now, and then it’s thirty-five miles. We shall be up by twelve.”
“Poor dear, and you’ve got to do all this back again.”
“I shall drive like Jehu. It’s a good anodyne.”
Clare touched his coat cuff, and there was another silence.
They had reached a wood when he slackened suddenly. “My lights have gone!”
A motor cyclist skidded past, calling: “Your lights are out, sir!”
Young Croom stopped the engine.
“That’s torn it. The battery must be used up.”
Clare laughed. He got out and moved round, examining the car. “I remember this wood. It’s a good five miles to Henley. We must creep on and trust to luck.”
“Shall I get out and walk ahead?”
“No, it’s so pitch dark. I might run over you.”
After a hundred yards or so he stopped again.
“I’m off the road. I’ve never driven in darkness like this.”
Clare laughed again.
“An adventure, my dear.”
“I’ve got no torch. This wood goes on for a mile or two, if I remember.”
“Let’s try again.”
A car whizzed past, and the driver shouted at them.
“Follow his lights, Tony!” But before he could start the engine the car had dipped or turned and was gone. They crept on slowly.
“Damn!” said young Croom, suddenly, “off the road again!”
“Pull her right in off the road then, and let’s think. Isn’t there anything at all before Henley?”
“Not a thing. Besides, recharging a battery can’t be done just anywhere; but I expect it’s a wire gone.”
“Shall we leave the car and walk in? She’ll be all right here in the wood.”
“And then?” muttered young Croom. “I must be back with her by daylight. I’ll tell you what; I’ll walk you in to the hotel, borrow a torch and come back to her. With a torch I could get her down, or stay with her till daylight, and then come down and pick you up at the Bridge.”
“Ten miles walking for you! Why not both stay with her and see the sun rise? I’ve always wanted to spend a night in a car.”
In young Croom a struggle took place. A whole night with her — alone!
“D’you mean you’d trust me?”
“Don’t be old-fashioned, Tony. It’s much the best thing to do, and rather a lark. If a car came into us, or we were run in for driving without lights, that would be awkward if you like.”
“There’s never a moon when you want one,” muttered young Croom. “You really mean it?”
Clare touched his arm.
“Pull her further in, among the trees. Very slow. Look out! Stop!”
There was a slight bump. Clare said:
“We’re up against a tree, and our tail’s to the road. I’ll get out and see if anyone can see us.”
Young Croom waited, arranging the cushions and rug for her. He was thinking: ‘She can’t really love me, or she’d never take it so coolly!’ Quivering at the thought of this long dark night with her, he yet knew it was going to be torture. Her voice said:
“All right. I should say no one could see the car. You go and have a look. I’ll get in.”
He had to feel his way with his feet. The quality of the ground showed him when he had reached the road. It was less densely dark, but he could see no stars. The car was completely invisible. He waited, then turned to feel his way back. So lost was the car that he had to whistle and wait for her answering whistle to find it. Dark, indeed! He got in.
“Window down or up?”
“Half-way down, I should say. I’m very comfy, Tony.”
“Thank God for that! D’you mind my pipe?”
“Of course not. Give me a cigarette. This is almost perfect.”
“Almost,” he said in a small voice.
“I should like to see Aunt Em’s face. Are you warm?”
“Nothing goes through leather. Are you?”
“Lovely!” There was a silence; then she said: “Tony! Forgive me, won’t you? I did promise.”
“It’s quite all right,” said young Croom.
“I can just see your nose by your pipe’s glow.”
By the light of her cigarette he, in turn, could see her teeth, her smiling lips, her face lasting just to the eyes, and fading out.
“Take off your hat, Clare. And any time you like, here’s my shoulder.”
“Don’t let me snore.”
“Everyone snores on occasion. This will be it.”
They talked for a little. But all seemed unreal, except just being beside her in the dark. He could hear now and again a car passing; other noises of the night there were none; too dark even for the owls. His pipe went out, and he put it away. She lay back beside him so close that he could feel her arm against his. He held his breath. Had she dropped off? Oh! He was in for a sleepless night, with this faint perfume from her egging on his senses and the warmth of her arm tingling into his. Even if this were all, it would be sheer waste to sleep. Drowsily she said:
“If you really don’t mind, I WILL put my head on your shoulder, Tony.”
Her head snuggled down on to his scarf; and the faint perfume, which carried with it reminder of a sunny pine wood, increased. Was it credible that she was there against his shoulder, and would be for another six or seven hours? And he shuddered. So still and matter-of-fact! No sign in her of passion or disturbance; he might have been her brother. With the force of revelation he perceived that this night would be a test that he must pass; for if he did not she would recoil and drop away from him. She WAS asleep. Oh! yes. You couldn’t counterfeit that little regular cluck, as of the tiniest chicken — a perfect little sound, faintly comic, infinitely precious! Whatever happened to him now, he would have passed a night with her! He sat — still as a mouse, if mice are still. Her head grew heavier and more confiding with the deepening of her slumber. And, while he sat and listened, his feeling for her deepened too, became almost a passion of protection and of service. And the night, cold, dark, still — no cars were passing now — kept him company; like some huge, dark, enveloping, just breathing creature, it was awake. The night did not sleep! For the first time in his life he realised that. Night was wakeful as the day. Unlighted and withdrawn, it had its sentience — neither spoke nor moved, just watched, and breathed. With stars and moon, or, as to-night, lampless and shuttered, it was a great companion.
His arm grew stiff, and, as if that reached her consciousness, she withdrew her head but did not wake. He rubbed his shoulder just in time, for almost at once her head lolled back again. Screwing round till his lips just touched her hair, he heard again, chicklike and bland, that faint rhythmic cluck. It ceased and became the deeper breathing of far-down slumber. Then drowsiness crept on him too; he slept.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08