SHE stood on the other side of the garden fence, and regarded me gravely as I came down the road. Then she said, " Hi-o! " and I responded, " Hullo! " and pulled up somewhat nervously.
To tell the truth, the encounter was not entirely unexpected on my part. The previous Sunday I had seen her in church, and after service it had transpired who she was, this new-comer, and what aunt she was staying with. That morning a volunteer had been called for, to take a note to the Parsonage, and rather to my own surprise I had found myself stepping forward with alacrity, while the others had become suddenly absorbed in various pursuits, or had sneaked unobtrusively out of view. Certainly I had not yet formed any deliberate plan of action; yet I suppose I recollected that the road to the Parsonage led past her aunt's garden.
She began the conversation, while I hopped backwards and forwards over the ditch, feigning a careless ease.
" Saw you in church on Sunday," she said; "only you looked different then. All dressed up, and your hair quite smooth, and brushed up at the sides, and oh, so shiny! What do they put on it to make it shine like that ? Don't you hate having your hair brushed?" she ran on, without waiting for an answer. " How your boots squeaked when you came down the aisle! When mine squeak, I walk in all the puddles till they stop. Think I 'll get over the fence."
This she proceeded to do in a businesslike way, while, with my hands deep in my pockets, I regarded her movements with silent interest, as those of some strange new animal.
" I 've been gardening," she explained, when she had joined me, " but I did n't like it. There's so many worms about to-day. I hate worms. Wish they'd keep out of the way when I'm digging."
" Oh, I like worms when I'm digging," I replied heartily, " seem to make things more lively, don't they ? "
She reflected. " Should n't mind 'em so much if they were warm and dry? she said, " but - " here she shivered, and somehow I liked her for it, though if it had been my own flesh and blood hoots of derision would have instantly assailed her.
From worms we passed,naturally enough, to frogs, and thence to pigs, aunts, gardeners, rocking-horses, and other fellow-citizens of our common kingdom. In five minutes we had each other's confidences, and I seemed to have known her for a lifetime. Somehow, on the subject of one's self it was easier to be frank and communicative with her than with one's female kin. It must be, I supposed, because she was less familiar with one's faulty, tattered past.
" I was watching you as you came along the road," she said presently, " and you had your head down and your hands in your pockets, and you were n't throwing stones at anything, or whistling, or jumping over things; and I thought perhaps you'd bin scolded, or got a stomachache."
"No," I answered shyly, "it wasn't that. Fact is, I was - I often - but it's a secret."
There I made an error in tactics. That enkindling word set her dancing round me, half beseeching, half imperious. " Oh, do tell it me! " she cried. " You must! I'll never tell anyone else at all, I vow and declare I won't! "
Her small frame wriggled with emotion, and with imploring eyes she jigged impatiently just in front of me. Her hair was tumbled bewitchingly on her shoulders, and even the loss of a front tooth - a loss incidental to her age - seemed but to add a piquancy to her face.
"You won't care to hear about it," I said, wavering. " Besides, I can't explain exactly. I think I won't tell you." But all the time I knew I should have to.
" But I do care," she wailed plaintively. " I did n't think you'd be so unkind ! "
This would never do. That little downward tug at either corner of the mouth - I knew the symptom only too well!
" It>'s like this," I began stammeringly. " This bit of road here - up as far as that corner -- you know it's a horrid dull bit of road. I'm always having to go up and down it, and I know it so well, and I'm so sick of it. So whenever I get to that corner, I just - well, I go right off to another place! "
"What sort of a place?" she asked, looking round her gravely.
" Of course it's just a place I imagine," I went on hurriedly and rather shamefacedly : " but it's an awfully nice place - the nicest place you ever saw. And I always go off there in church, or during joggraphy lessons."
" I'm sure it's not nicer than my home," she cried patriotically. " Oh, you ought to see my home - it's lovely! We've got-"
" Yes it is, ever so much nicer," I interrupted. " I mean " - I went on apologetically- "of course I know your home's beautiful and all that. But this must be nicer, 'cos if you want anything at all, you 've only got to want it, and you can have it! "
" That sounds jolly," she murmured. " Tell me more about it, please. Tell me how you get there, first." u j-* don't - quite - know- exactly," I replied. " I just go. But generally it begins by - well, you're going up a broad, clear river in a sort of a boat. You're not rowing or anything-you're just moving along. And there's beautiful grass meadows on both sides, and the river's very full, quite up to the level of the grass. And you glide along by the edge. And the people are haymaking there, and playing games, and walking about; and they shout to you, and you shout back to them, and they bring you things to eat out of their baskets, and let you drink out of their bottles; and some of 'em are the nice people you read about in books. And so at last you come to the Palace steps-great broad marble steps, reaching right down to the water. And there at the steps you find every sort of boat you can imagine - schooners, and punts, and row-boats, and little men-of-war. And you have any sort of boating you want to - rowing, or sailing, or shoving about in a punt! "
"I'd go sailing," she said decidedly: " and I'd steer. No,you Vhave to steer, and I'd sit about on the deck. No, I would n't though ; I'd row - at least I'd make you row, and I'd steer. And then we'd - Oh, no ! I 'll tell you what we'd do! We'd just sit in a punt and dabble! "