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We staggered down to the riverside with our packs and embarked, with the intention of reaching Sandford before breakfast. And I may as well make it clear from the start that we ate and slept exactly where we had said we would throughout the expedition.
Thoroughly impressed by our nonchalant gallantry, the sun came out before 8 A.M. and stopped abroad for several hours. As I said before, we had a map. It was a very great map indeed. I discovered it all by myself in the Educational Supply Stores-a very warehouse full of aids to knowledge, wherein I have promised myself I will some day find out the post-war boundaries in Europe and Ireland. This map was made on purpose for such lunatics as we. It pointed out every step or rather shove on our watery way. It marked the bottom as good, bad, or indifferent, usually one of the two latter, and showed us us spots where it was wiser not to seek the bottom with a pole lest you found it with your head, but to sit down
quietly and wield the humble paddle. It warned you even of places where it was advisable to spring out and use the tow-rope. We were first driven to this expedient near Abingdon, where the wind was blowing very much as it listed and entirely to our disadvantage. The wind on the river is a devilish creature: it combines frontal and flank attacks in a way that would bother a Viking. (I believe naval officers in refractory punts are extraordinarily well worth watching.)
At first G. got out and took the towing-rope, while I sat tight and steered with the paddle. But he complained I did not keep her out, and I protested that he jerked me in, and had better try himself. These things being thus, we changed places, and for a time (a very short time) all went smoothly, I tramping along like a barge-horse, and G. keeping the fairway between moist vegetable entanglements. Then the reeds appeared to be encroaching queerly on the land, and the path gradually led me into a swamp. Now was I like the proud little girl in Hans Andersen's fairy story who desired to avoid dirtying her new red shoes; but I had no nice crusty loaves of bread to hurl before me, and my shoes, had I proceeded in a straight line, would have been not only dirty but many inches under water. Hence I retreated farther and farther into the county
of Berkshire, thereby forcibly deflecting G. from his course and inducing him to become astoundingly voluble. I could not hear much of what he said, thanks to the gale that was blowing, but I felt it was language more suited to his recent life among batteries and Boches than to a simple postArmistice punt with a kind elder sister. Anyhow, I explained (again, owing to the wind, quite inaudibly) that I could not continue to walk along a path that wasn't there, and that was that. It looked as though a great beginning would have a little ending, which happens in life more commonly than the reverse, when I happened to catch sight of some well-disposed strangers gesticulating wildly on the opposite bank and beckoning to us to come across. Then I realised that the real towing-path ran on the other side, whereas the track I had been pursuing was rapidly returning to the jungle. I imagine we must have mislaid or misread the map on this occasion; I cannot believe our faithful authors let us down. Anyhow, I asserted myself for once. I wound in G. like a large (but certainly not dumb) fish, and explained the situation as I saw it in the light of new revelation.
We crossed the river, discovered the right path, and lo! peace, perfect peace, with most of our loved ones far away and lunch in prospect.
We reached Wallingford that
night, and ordered champagne. I could smile at such dissipation, as I was still earning my living in a war hospital, though, work growing less, I had obtained leave of absence for urgent public regattas.
We consulted some Wallingford wight, waiter, or waterman-I have forgotten which
-as to the best spot to lie up for the night. He recommended the shelter of the willows fringing the garden of a large house still in use as an officers' hospital. From what I knew of the matutinal habits of convalescent officers, I felt sure we should be well away before they wandered to the river's brim in the morning.
We tied up and slept in comfort till the "d-d cheerful little birds," as a disgruntled gentleman endeavouring to do a country rest-cure described them, woke us up at sunrise. But you require less sleep out of doors than within, which is lucky, as you invariably get it. This is one of the few boasted laws of compensation that really works. It must have got left over from the Golden Age through some oversight on the part of the gods, who are generally so intelligently spiteful.
Anyway, I rather loved the birds, particularly a fat primadonna of a wood-pigeon with an adorable contralto. (If he was a cock I can't help it-it was a nice noise anyhow.) The sky grew swiftly brighter. Another fine day? Was it
possible? G. heaved himself up, and suggested bathing. I extracted my bathing-dress and changed among the trees, while the hospital still slept, unconscious of our trespass. We swam in the morning cool, of which there was quite enough, and dressed again on a bank so muddy that I questioned the cleansing qualities of the whole proceeding. But at least it was brave and British. It is not too easy to arrange your hair in an unbreakable looking-glass about three inches square; but mine would never go as I pleased if I twisted it daily in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, so what's the what's the odds !
Our second day's journey was calm and uneventful, save for a heavy rainstorm, from which we found a most convenient refuge under the solid arches of Reading bridge. We congratulated ourselves that it had not occurred the night before, feeling more love for bricks than branches overhead on these occasions. It appears that we staggered the weather again, for a rosy sunset shed light on our arrival at Wargrave, where we were very near to Henley.
The hotel was full of visitors, more elegant than we; but "wait till to-morrow," we said. G. drew the head waiter into a corner and held mysterious converse, which, after money passed and promised, was to bear fruit on the following morning. That night we slipped into a delicious backwater, and
lay alongside an islet whereon grew "a little leavéd wood." Stretched full length at opposite ends of the punt, we lay awake a long time discussing Life, with a large L. Our heads being far apart, we discussed somewhat loudly, and presently our conversation drifted to the eternally absorbing topic of ourselves, and became, if I remember rightly, of a rather intimate nature. I do not think that either of us paid much attention to the other's remarks (this is a particularly pleasing and unembarrassed form of tête-à-tête), but I was rather horrified when we had finally settled down to slumber to hear among the usual nocturnal rustlings something that distinctly resembled a human grunt. Was it possible we had a listener, that any one but ourselves had dared to choose this Stevensonian method of passing the night? I kicked anxiously at G., but he was too sleepy to heed me, so I shut my eyes and thought no more about it. Next morning, however, when we sat up and started some new argument, we heard the grunts again, and this time there was no mistaking their manly origin. Sure enough, when we paddled out in search of breakfast we saw on rounding the island a rival punt, fitted with a pompous awning such as we had scorned, and containing one male British adult, who gazed upon us as we passed him with eyes "on stalks." Evidently our thoughtless chatter
of the night before had filled him with scandalised interest.
When we reached the hotel again the fun began. Of course it was full to the roof, with no bedrooms officially available wherein we could titivate for Henley. But G.'s pecuniary transactions with the head waiter, coupled with my soft soap and blandishments to the chambermaid, worked wonders. While unconscious innocents stuffed eggs and bacon in the dining-room below, we were smuggled into their apartments and supplied with hot water, soap, and towels. I locked my-I mean the other person's-door, and proceeded hurriedly to a toilet which, I flatter myself, was rather successful, all things considered. All the while I was weighed down by a sense of guilt and terror lest the real lessee of the bedroom should come bounding upstairs in search of a forgotten pocket-handkerchief or something, and raise Cain on discovering herself locked out. No such contretemps occurred, but I had a shock nevertheless. Happening to glance at the crowded and dusty mantelpiece I saw a large photograph of the gentleman who had slept under the awning and betrayed his presence by his tendency to grunt. Evidently this room had been occupied by his devoted spouse, while in his bold masculine way he had slept in the open-at least in a tempered form of open-in the backwater. I felt this coinci
dence ought somehow to be in a monthly magazine story, but I was not anxious for further developments in real life. I put on speed with my dressing operations and sneaked downstairs unchallenged. G. had been equally successful, for I met our friend the head waiter "with a smile round both his ears."
"Your gentleman do look nice now, miss," he murmured confidentially. (I don't think for a moment he thought us all we should be.) "It's wonderful the difference a good shave makes."
We certainly felt equal to taking our rightful places in society as we proceeded, clean and leisurely, down to Henley, G., quite unfatigued by his herculean labours, piloting us discreetly through the crowded lock.
We had yet another night's accommodation to consider, but had hopes of the College barge. This had preceded us from Oxford, as G. and his colleagues had let it to a Canadian crew who were competing in the Regatta. It was fortunate that the Canadians no more wished to occupy the barge at night than the hotel visitors had wished to occupy their bedrooms during the breakfast hour.
H., the boatman who always had this particular Noah's Ark in charge, and was of course on intimate terms with my brother, was only too delighted to offer us its shelter. He, too, had had some adventures while supervising the tran
sit of this commodious vessel. it's hell to go in for rowing, A lady novelist, writing pleas- but then it's worse hell if antly of life among women you don't." students at a university, once described her heroines' prowess thus: "The girls of St Ursula's sculled their college barge briskly down the river." I suppose they practise very early in the morning; anyhow, I fear none of us will ever catch these amazing female galleyslaves manipulating their long sweeps.
That night, then, I allowed myself the luxury of going to bed in a nightgown in the innermost cabin, while G. occupied the centre one. I felt a perfect lady again; but we were nearly boarded by pirates in the form of a boatful of gay revellers seeking a Captain Something or other, whom they declared to lurk on our decks. H. drove them firmly away, implying that the barge was very full of emptiness, except where he stood on guard. We lay low, and the party metaphorically sheathed its cutcutlasses and withdrew. Night fell on tents and houses and the waiting course, where the river flowed between the booms. We upped and bathed again at 7, swimming lazily around the sleepy scene soon to become so gay and strenuous. I wonder why men row when I see them look like Durer's illustrations of the Inferno at the end of a race, but have never heard a more satisfactory explanation than, "Of course
Still, even I can thrill to a close race though profoundly ignorant on points of style and finish. Being actually on the spot we were able to choose our place for the show, and had a perfect view of the fight between Australia and Oxford. The colonials had it.
Of course, the inevitable thunderstorm broke towards the evening to swamp the prizegiving and damp the fireworks. The romance, such as it had been, of our inland voyage was over, and I returned to Oxford by train, leaving G. to dine with boon companions and follow later, which he duly did, after being robbed of a pocket-book, which he had
more or less " (that is the Oxford motto) left to look after itself in a temporarily discarded waistcoat. But no doubt philosophers bear these things better than the "plain man," whose naïve assertions are so beautifully rebutted in their books.