Just – William Page 20

At last he managed to avoid the fatal magnet of the holly bush, to steer an unsteady ziz-zag course down the drive and out into the road. He had had no particular intention of riding into the road. In fact he was still wearing his befeathered headgear, blacked face, and the mat pinned to his shoulders. It was only when he was actually in the road that he realised that retreat was impossible, that he had no idea how to get off the bicycle.

What followed was to William more like a nightmare than anything else. He saw a motor-lorry coming towards him and in sudden panic turned down a side street and from that into another side street. People came out of their houses to watch him pass. Children booed or cheered him and ran after him in crowds. And William went on and on simply because he could not stop. His iron nerve had failed him. He had not even the presence of mind to fall off. He was quite lost. He had left the town behind him and did not know where he was going. But wherever he went he was the center of attraction. The strange figure with blackened, streaked face, mat flying behind in the wind and a head-dress of feathers from which every now and then one floated away, brought the population to its doors. Some said he had escaped from an asylum, some that he was an advertisement of something. The children were inclined to think he was part of a circus. William himself had passed beyond despair. His face was white and set. His first panic had changed to a dull certainty that this would go on forever. He would never know how to stop. He supposed he would go right across England. He wondered if he were near the sea now. He couldn’t be far off. He wondered if he would ever see his mother and father again. And his feet pedaled mechanically along. They did not reach the pedals at their lowest point; they had to catch them as they came up and send them down with all their might.

It was very tiring; William wondered if people would be sorry if he dropped down dead.

I have said that William did not know where he was going.

But Fate knew.

The picnickers walked down the hill from the little station to the river bank. It was a beautiful morning. Robert, his heart and hopes high, walked beside his goddess, revelling in his nearness to her though he could think of nothing to say to her. But Ethel and Mrs. Clive chattered gaily.

“We’ve given William the slip,” said Ethel with a laugh. “He’s no idea where we’ve gone even!”

“I’m sorry,” said Miss Cannon, “I’d have loved William to be here.”

“You don’t know him,” said Ethel fervently.

“What a beautiful morning it is!” murmured Robert, feeling that some remark was due from him. “Am I walking too fast for you—Miss Cannon?”

“Oh, no.”

“May I carry your parasol for you?” he enquired humbly.

“Oh, no, thanks.”

He proposed a boat on the river after lunch, and it appeared that Miss Cannon would love it, but Ethel and Mrs. Clive would rather stay on the bank.

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