His cup of bliss was full. It would be his opportunity of sealing lifelong friendship with her, of arranging a regular correspondence, and hinting at his ultimate intentions. He must tell her that, of course, while he was at college he was not in a position to offer his heart and hand, but if she could wait—— He began to compose speeches in his mind.
They reached the bank and opened the luncheon baskets. Unhampered by Robert the cook had surpassed herself. They spread the white cloth and took up their position around it under the shade of the trees.
Just as Robert was taking up a plate of sandwiches to hand them with a courteous gesture to Miss Cannon, his eyes fell upon the long, white road leading from the village to the riverside and remained fixed there, his face frozen with horror. The hand that held the plate dropped lifelessly back again on to the table-cloth. Their eyes followed his. A curious figure was cycling along the road—a figure with blackened face and a few drooping feathers on its head, and a door-mat flying in the wind. A crowd of small children ran behind cheering. It was a figure vaguely familiar to them all.
“It can’t be,” said Robert hoarsely, passing a hand over his brow.
No one spoke.
It came nearer and nearer. There was no mistaking it.
“William!” gasped four voices.
William came to the end of the road. He did not turn aside to either of the roads by the riverside. He did not even recognize or look at them. With set, colorless face he rode on to the riverbank, and straight amongst them. They fled from before his charge. He rode over the table-cloth, over the sandwiches, patties, rolls, and cakes, down the bank and into the river.
They rescued him and the bicycle. Fate was against Robert even there. It was a passing boatman who performed the rescue. William emerged soaked to the skin, utterly exhausted, but feeling vaguely heroic. He was not in the least surprised to see them. He would have been surprised at nothing. And Robert wiped and examined his battered bicycle in impotent fury in the background while Miss Cannon pillowed William’s dripping head on her arm, fed him on hot coffee and sandwiches, and called him “My poor darling Red Hand!”
She insisted on going home with him. All through the journey she sustained the character of his faithful squaw. Then, leaving a casual invitation to Robert and Ethel to come over to tea, she departed to pack.
Mrs. Brown descended the stairs from William’s room with a tray on which reposed a half-empty bowl of gruel, and met Robert in the hall.
“Robert,” she remonstrated, “you really needn’t look so upset.”
Robert glared at her and laughed a hollow laugh.
“Upset!” he echoed, outraged by the inadequacy of the expression. “You’d be upset if your life was ruined. You’d be upset. I’ve a right to be upset.”
He passed his hand desperately through his already ruffled hair.
“You’re going there to tea,” she reminded him.