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THE IDYL OF SWIFTWATER
By CHARLES T. C. JAMES.
you the girl who did it ? "
“I," said Norah, with a smile, "am the girl who did it.” All day long and every day, come wet, come wind, come sunshine, Norah, the girl at the ferry, poled the punt backwards and forwards across the river, and many people lately had come to be ferried across by her. They thought there was an honour in being ferried across by the girl who had done the thing to which the vicar's wife from the next parish alluded in the question given above.
“Tell me,” continued the lady, "all about it. I must hear it from your own lips. I will sit here, at the end of the punt, and hear the story from your own lips.”
“It was nothing, nothing at all," Norah replied, but placing a cushion at the end of the punt for the greater ease of the old lady, and then standing before her in picturesque garb, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, wide-brimmed hat slantwise on her head as a shield directed against the blazing afternoon sun, and one hand on the top of the punt pole, planted on the outward side of her moored craft to keep it steady at the landing-place. “Less than nothing, Mrs. Marcus.”
“ But I don't think so, my dear, and I want to hear your own account of it." NO. 1943:
“Why, you see,” Norah began, looking thoughtfully at the great broad stream that even in that summer weather swirled and eddied turbulently by, “why, you see, I had just ferried the pic-nic party across, and noticed what a pretty little girl it was they had with them, and so had watched them making their preparations for tea beside the bank, when, all at once, I heard a scream and saw the poor little thing in the water. What was it, on a summer day, to have gone in after the child and brought her out? Anyone would have done it, placed as I was. They couldn't have helped doing it ; and it isn't worth a word.”
“It would have been a brave thing, standing alone. But it is not your first rescue,” Mrs. Marcus said, with admiring eyes hardly dimmed by the spectacles through which they glanced up at the tall strong figure and the handsome gipsy face.
“Old Clark, when he got tipsy and fell out of my punt last winter in the twilight ? Oh, I couldn't drown a passenger, you know! It would ruin business."
“You're a remarkable girl !” Mrs. Marcus returned, still looking admiringly at face and figure. “Do you really mean to tell me that you're contented with your life, living all by yourself in that little hut (which you keep as neat as a new pin), and that you wouldn't like to try a new life—I don't like to say a better station of life, seeing the noble things you've done in your present one-somewhere else?"
“I do mean it, Mrs. Marcus, honestly, Pr’aps if I'd been able to arrange things for myself I'd have had one or two things different. I'd have liked poor father to have lived on, so that I shouldn't have been quite so lonely in the winter's evenings. P'raps if he hadn't said with his last breath, Norah, keep you on the ferry! There's been Jacksons at Swiftwater Ferry for three generations; keep you on the ferry,' I'd have turned to something else. As it is, you seewhy, it's as it is, and here I am.”
Then Norah laughed.
“Well, my dear," Mrs. Marcus rejoined, “as you seem to like it, and as you are so useful at it, perhaps this ferry 's your right place in the world. I don't know, I'm sure. If you'd been anywhere else you wouldn't have saved two lives, I expect. Fancy it! What danger you must have been in.”
“Not very much, either time,” said Norah, laughing still. “The third 's the dangerous time, you know. When that comes I must be careful."
“I hope,” replied Mrs. Marcus, “that it never may come !"
“Oh, I don't know. If it does, I'm ready for it! Shall I punt
you across ?”
“ If you please. I don't know that there's anything pleasanter, on such a day, than being ferried across by such a girl.”
It was such a marvell ously responsive craft that the least movement on Norah's part-a mere smile of hers down at the waterand the punt was out in the stream, moving diagonally across it. The exertion was of so slight a nature to Norah that she spoke as unconstrainedly in mid-stream as though she had been sitting in a drawingroom with an egg-shell tea-cup in her hands in lieu of the long pole that bent in her grasp notwithstanding the apparent ease of her movements.
“It's strange to me," she said, “sometimes, to think I've got to make just the same allowance as father had for the current ; that there's just the same strength in the current now that there used to be fifteen years ago, when I began to learn to balance myself in the punt, a little mite of three : I've changed so very much and it hasn't changed at all !”
“And won't, my dear, I expect, for the next five hundred years."
“Unless, you know, they come to make that bridge they're always talking of, and so do away with me altogether. I don't seem to belong to the present age at all, do I? I'm such an old-world institution, you see: I feel as if I belonged to the gallant days when “knights were bold,” and there were barons holding sway, and all that sort of thing. When there was chiv—what's the word, Mrs. Marcus ? "
"Chivalry, my dear?”
“But you know a very great deal. I think you wonderfully well educated.”
“ All that curate who's gone away,” Norah said, with a grave face. "All his doings, when father was smoking his pipe in the evenings. Night work."
They were nearing the opposite bank now, and Mrs. Marcus looked very closely at the handsome gipsy face, and wondered whether the rumour were true that poor Mr. Chex, curate, of no expectations, had been wildly in love with his pupil and would have married her if she'd given him the least encouragement, which she wouldn't.
In the final survey of that face as the end of the punt bumped on the bank, Mrs. Marcus felt she wouldn't have been greatly surprised if that rumour had been a true one.
"Well, my dear,” she said, handed cut by Norah with the greatest
care, “I don't know what to wish you in parting, I'm sure. I don't like to see you where you are ; and yet I don't like the thought of your being anywhere else, because your place in life may be here, you see. But I'm very glad to have heard the story of the rescue from your own lips; and I don't in the least grudge the mile-and-a-half out of my way to come and hear you tell it. Good-bye.”
She freely and cordially held out her hand at parting, did good old Mrs. Marcus. Norah shook it with her own large but shapely hand, and then got back into the punt again, while the old lady puffed away up the two or three steep feet of loose gravel path that led to the footway through the wood. Arrived at the top of those two or three steep feet of path, however, Mrs. Marcus turned back and called out :
“Perhaps, my dear, the age of chivalry isn't entirely over yet. Perhaps, if you keep on looking as steadily into the stream as you were doing when I came upon you half an hour ago, one day you'll see the reflection of a knight there. Who knows ? "
“Ah !” laughed Norah back, “who knows?”
Then the old lady went her way, and Norah, remaining with her punt where she was, seemed to have laid the advice very much to heart, for she sat in the far end of her craft and stared into the water with all her might.
She might have so stared and waited for a period of half an hour; then there came the distant sound of heavy-booted footsteps breaking coarsely on her reverie, and, raising her head, she looked up, not in the direction of the footsteps, but across the stream to her little black-tarred, two-roomed, wooden abode.
The sun had got low down in the sky, and had opened a banking account with both windows of the cabin, and paid in nothing but gold upon those two gleaming counters. There were woods both sides the river, and amongst those towards which Norah was glancing a silver moon had put in a chaste and modest appearance to bid the sun good-night; or, perhaps, seeing the sun so overburdened by gold - he had turned the whole up-stream to that precious metal, in a molten state by that time—to see if he would care for a little change in silver.
As Norah looked appreciatively at all this natural glory, a sharp whistle arrowed through the silence, and made her start. It was discharged by the owner of the heavy-booted steps, and that worthy stood on the bank whence Mrs. Marcus had previously departed, and looked down at Norah. He was a particularly agriculturallooking young man, with a good-natured face of the beefy order; and
its appearance was not enhanced in grandeur by a very sickly, not to say sheepish, expression which came upon it when it caught sight of the dark eyes of Norah looking up at its own placidly bovine ones.
“Oh!” she said calmly, “So you've come. I thought you wouldn't be long, so I waited to save myself the trouble of coming across for you, you know,” she added by way of explanation. “Get in, Noakes, please.”
Noakes—the only name he ever bore, and supposed to be Christian, and not sur-though nobody, including himself, knew for certain—went down the bank, deposited his basket of rush-plait, which heid his dinner at an earlier period of the day, upon the end seat of the punt, and embarked.
“Shell oi shove 'er across ?” he inquired, looking straight up at the distant moon; but presumably referring to the punt, with which the operation would be more useful and efficacious.
Norah also appeared to understand the query as having a more direct bearing on the punt, for she resigned the pole into the vast hands of Noakes, and answered,
“If you like you can. I'll sit down."
Then Noakes, making a good deal of noise with his hob-nailed boots on the lower deck as he stepped to and fro, began to "shove 'er across."
For the first three or four digs of the pole in the ribs of the river Noakes shoved 'er across in silence; then he turned his head a little to get a look at somebody's face, and shoved 'er across to the words, spoken in a tone of the sincerest conviction,
“You du ternight; that you du !
du." Then Mr. Noakes shoved 'er across in such remarkable fashion, that the pole appeared wrestling with him to see which should be wholly submerged first.
“Don't be stupid ; and mind what you're doing. You'll have the punt over if you go on like that.”
“Noa,” returned Mr. Noakes, more sheepishly sickly than ever ; "oi'll shove 'er across all right.” Which he proceeded to do in silence.
When he got out he paused a moment, and looked back across Norah to the opposite plantation.
“Oi s'pose it ain't a bit o' use o' my speakin' of the thing again?” he inquired very despondently, addressing the opposite plantation, and feeling how many days' growth of beard he had on his chin with a large rough hand.