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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 8108

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Jack Vernon looked discontentedly at the big canvas on the easel, and with a shrug of the shoulders he turned his back on it. He dropped his palette and flung his sheaf of brushes into an open drawer.

"I am not fit for anything to-day," he said petulantly. "I was up too late last night. No, most decidedly, I am not in the mood for work."

He sauntered to the huge end window of the studio, and looked out over the charming stretch of Ravenscourt Park. It was an ideal morning toward the close of April, 1897-such a morning as one finds at its best in the western suburbs of mighty London. The trees were in fresh leaf and bud, the crocuses were blooming in the well-kept beds, and the grass was a sheet of glittering emeralds. The singing of birds vied with the jangle of tram-bells out on the high-road.

"A pull on the river will take the laziness out of me," thought Jack, as he yawned and extended his arms. "What glorious weather! It would be a shame to stop indoors."

A mental picture of the silvery Thames, green-wooded and sunny, proved too strong an allurement to resist. Jack did not know that Destiny, watchful of opportunity, had taken this beguiling shape to lead him to a turning-point of his life-to steer him into the thick of troubled and restless waters, of gray clouds and threatening storms. He discarded his paint-smeared blouse-he had worn one since his Paris days-and, getting quickly into white flannel and a river hat, he lit a briar pipe and went forth whistling to meet his fate.

He was fond of walking, and he knew every foot of old Chiswick by heart. He struck across the high-road, down a street of trim villas to a more squalid neighborhood, and came out by the lower end of Chiswick Mall, sacred to memories of the past. He lingered for a moment by the stately house immortalized by Thackeray in Vanity Fair, and pictured Amelia Sedley rolling out of the gates in her father's carriage, while Becky Sharpe hurled the offending dictionary at the scandalized Miss Pinkerton. Tempted by the signboard of the Red Lion, and by the red-sailed wherries clustered between the dock and the eyot, he stopped to quaff a foaming pewter on a bench outside the old inn.

A little later he had threaded the quaint passage behind Chiswick Church, left the sonorous hammering of Thorneycroft's behind him, and was stepping briskly along Burlington Lane, with the high wall of Devonshire House on his right, and on his left, far over hedges and orchards, the riverside houses of Barnes. He was almost sorry when he reached Maynard's boat-house, where he kept a couple of light and serviceable craft; but the dimpled bosom of the Thames, sparkling in the sunlight, woke a fresh enthusiasm in his heart, and made him long to transfer the picture to canvas.

"Even a Turner could not do it half justice," he reflected.

It was indeed a scene to defy any artist, but there were some bold enough to attempt it. As Jack pulled up the river he saw, here and there, a fellow-craftsman ensconced in a shady nook with easel and camp-chair. His vigorous strokes sent him rapidly by Strand-on-the-Green, that secluded bit of a village which so few Londoners have taken the trouble to search out. A narrow paved quay, fringed with stately elm trees, separated the old-fashioned, many-colored houses from the reedy shore, where at high tide low great black barges, which apparently go nowhere, lie moored in picturesque array.

It was all familiar to Jack, but he never tired of this stretch of the Thames. He dived under Kew Bridge, shot by Kew Gardens and ancient Brentford, and turned around off Isleworth. He rowed leisurely back, dropping the oars now and again to light his pipe.

"There's nothing like this to brace a fellow up," he said to himself, as he drew near Maynard's. "I should miss the river if I took a studio in town. I'll have a bit of lunch at the Red Lion, and then go home and do an afternoon's work."

A churning, thumping noise, which he had disregarded before, suddenly swelled louder and warned him o

f possible danger. He was about off the middle of Strand-on-the-Green, and, glancing around, he saw one of the big Thames excursion steamers, laden with passengers, ploughing up-stream within fifty yards of him, but at a safe distance to his right. The same glimpse revealed a pretty picture midway between himself and the vessel-a young girl approaching in a light Canadian canoe. She could not have been more than twenty, and the striking beauty of her face was due to those charms of expression and feature which are indefinable. A crimson Tam-o'-Shanter was perched jauntily on her golden hair, and a blue Zouave jacket, fitting loosely over her blouse, gave full play to the grace and skill with which she handled the paddle.

Jack was indifferent to women, and wont to boast that none could enslave him, but the sight of this fair young English maiden, if it did not weaken the citadel of his heart, at least made that organ beat a trifle faster. He shot one look of bold admiration, then turned and bent to the oars.

"I don't know when I have seen so lovely a face," he thought. "I wonder who she is."

The steamer glided by, and the next moment Jack was nearly opposite to the canoe. What happened then was swift and unexpected. Above the splash of the revolving paddles he heard hoarse shouts and warning cries. He saw green waves approaching, flung up in the wake of the passing vessel. As he dropped the oars and leapt anxiously to his feet the frail canoe, unfitted to encounter such a peril, was clutched and lifted broadside by the foaming swell. Over it went instantly, and there was a flash of red and blue as the girl was flung headfirst into the river.

As quickly Jack clasped his hands and dived from his boat. He came to the top and swam forward with desperate strokes. He saw the upturned canoe, the floating paddle, the half-submerged Tam-o'-Shanter. Then a mass of dripping golden hair cleft the surface, only to sink at once.

But Jack had marked the spot, and, taking a full breath, he dived. To the onlookers the interval seemed painfully long, and a hundred cheering voices rent the air as the young artist rose to view, keeping himself afloat with one arm, while the other supported the girl. She was conscious, but badly scared and disposed to struggle.

"Be quite still," Jack said, sharply. "You are in no danger-I will save you if you trust me."

The girl obeyed, looking into Jack's eyes with a calmer expression. The steamer had stopped, and half a dozen row-boats were approaching from different directions. A grizzled waterman and his companion picked up the two and pulled them across to Strand-on-the-Green. Others followed towing Jack's boat and the canoe, and the big steamer proceeded on her way to Kew Pier.

The Black Bull, close by the railway bridge, received the drenched couple, and the watermen were delighted by the gift of a sovereign. A motherly woman took the half-dazed girl upstairs, and Jack was led into the oak-panelled parlor of the old inn by the landlord, who promptly poured him out a little brandy, and then insisted on his having a change of clothing.

"Thank you; I fear I must accept your offer," said Jack. "But I hope you will attend to the young lady first. Your wife seemed to know her."

"Quite well, sir," was the reply. "Bless you, we all know Miss Madge Foster hereabouts. She lives yonder at the lower end of the Green-"

"Then she had better be taken home."

"I think this is the best place for her at present, sir. Her father is in town, and there is only an old servant."

"You are quite right," said Jack. "I suppose there is a doctor near by."

"There is, sir, and I will send for him at once," the landlord promised. "If you will kindly step this way-"

At that moment there was a stir among the curious idlers who filled the entrance passage of the inn. An authoritative voice opened a way between them, and a man pushed through to the parlor. His face changed color at the sight of Jack, who greeted him with a cry of astonishment.

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