Thomas Buller had appeared upon the great, shining jewel within Her Majesty The Queen's Imperial Diadem at an unknown point in time, and in unclear circumstances. Truth be told, it's not even certain that by then his name had been Thomas, or his surname Buller, for any considerable length of time.
He was about thirty, or in any case of some age past the naive exuberances of first adulthood but prior to the philosophical disinterest of the third. He earned his salt and justified his time before society through employment of some nature with one of the larger trading houses in New Delhi, its nature never exactly specified to the knowledge of any of the other clerks there engaged nor his presence about the offices protracted sufficiently as to allow their limited means of investigation reach any definite conclusion.
William Podington on the other hand had arrived in New Delhi according to a contract signed in the London offices of the same firm, upon specific invitation by their representative at Oxford, boarding ship the week after his very much talked-about First. It is indeed rare that any candidate's viva voce turns rather into an exercise of flattery by the appointed examiners, but few recalled another instance at Oxford where the fellows actually stood and applauded.
On the strength of this standing ovation, barely a minute in actual duration yet coming at such particularly convenient a moment in time -- for other youths had been indeed applauded for longer, and that same year, or month, and even by more people, and in richer decorated halls, standing upon better constructed floors, or within less drafty agglomerations of stone, and on and on, yet...
On the strength of that single, passing, momentary event Mr. Podington found a great number of most attractive and certainly lucrative prospects open before him, the majority of which also including wedding arrangements. That he passed on all such possibilities open before him should certainly not be held against the young ladies involved, as there can be little doubt indeed that within and among the female herd then coming of age and being therefore in the sights of the respective husbands for immediate disposition through convenient settlement there could be found such substance as to satisfy any demand, such brute material as to justify any taste and thoroughly employ any chisel, brilliant rose, bright lilac, blanched almond, buff and alabaster to in the end both satisfy and exhaust any painter's hand.
Nor perhaps should it be held against the talented Mr. Podington himself. In his heart of hearts he deemed he was, as his journals of the time indeed reflect, incomplete in a way coming earlier than marriage in the natural unfurling of the human bud ; and it is indeed true that a certain sense and experience of adventure, of actual risk and actual reward (of the only kind there is, or ever could be -- one's own life) were heretofore missing from the dough of the applauded English youth whose whole life to that point had barely compassed a hundred miles upon the Earth's widely stretching face -- and what a quaint, settled, orderly and ultimately boring hundred those miles made up! That he opted not to go yet in the oven and be baked before adding a pinch of salt, so to speak, may not necessarily paint a young fellow in the unkind colors of the confirmed bachelor's palette.
It can then be supposed without much fear of contradiction that the two found each other within a short time of Mr. Podington's landing ; indeed he was looking for something quite like Mr. Buller, and, as it turns out, unbeknownst to all, chief of which himself, Mr. Buller in his turn was also looking for something quite like Mr. Podington. They struck a capital friendship upon the minute's very sight and, learning later of each other's circumstances from abroad and from beyond their own, narrow, twin-engine, two-seater world they were indeed very little surprised. "But of course you were!" became, through unintentional yet naturally repeated ejaculation, a sort of private joke within their bifocal circle, and they soon agreed that, in the regrettable event of either's cessation from this world, the other will undertake the support and maintenance of the remaining family.
That neither was at that time married, let alone blessed with progeny, nor had momentarily any intentions of undertaking such a step did not figure proeminently in the consideration, as far as they could see. This, then, was the original Buller-Podington Compact : a kind of agreement common enough among men in their circumstance and situation, useful and besides important as a crowning achievement of common man's best intent and furthest exercise of his mental capacity, rendered in their particular case rather an exercise in humorous connivance by the exceptional gifts and abilities Providence in her mercy reserved exclusively for their blessing, rather than spreading more evenly among mankind, and in this even-ness destroy them.
The original Buller-Podington Compact was soon followed by another, of a more practical sort : the happy pair agreed to something experience readily indicated as a wise course in the shortest of spaces, namely, that whenever either found a satisfactory whore, she would be retained rather than dismissed upon consummation, and the other notified. It so happened that both men's mating preference ran almost exactly parallel, in a reliable if apparently unspeakable manner. They delighted in many kinds of the female animal then in trade, indeed they appreciated almost all capital articles -- neither Buller nor Podington would have rejected a sexual toy for her being too dark skinned, or too light skinned, too tall, or too short, for having the wrong eye color, or curly hair, or straight hair, small feet, or large feet. They greatly delighted in wits, though not all of them, indeed not most of them ; and though they both thought they did not appreciate the boyish kind of female form so sadly oversupplied in their motherland, with its bosom modest to the point of almost ridicule and buttocks less developed than a healthy lad their age, even this supposed rule found readily its exceptions in their joint practice.
In a word, both Buller and Podington liked a small portion of almost any kind of whore, but they reliably found most delightful almost any woman the other hand enjoyed, hence the necessity of the compact. As they readily observed that either of them had slightly better (or, perhaps, depending on the moment's mood, slightly worse) than even odds of being satisfied upon spending an hour or two perusing the wares offered in any establishment, however well appointed, whereas were virtually guaranteed a most pleasant time in the company of whatever the other had in fact enjoyed, it seemed rather wasteful to not share the fruits of time and effort expended in selection. Twice the satisfaction for shared information is, indeed, the oldest compact humanity has known, and it would with justice be deemed rather a mental defect of the two had they failed to arrive at as much.
The third Buller-Podington Compact grew naturally from the second, and followed necessarily in the footsteps of the first : they agreed that they would only marry together, which was to say not merely at the same time, such as to avoid the unseemly situation where one, still a bachelor, was confronted with the complex changes in their happy, enduring friendship the other's new circumstances drove, in a most unbalanced manner. No, nothing as plain, trite and ordinary as merely that would do for such gentlemen as these -- and after all, they weren't (nor ever had been, but certainly by this point could not be in any light suspected of being) little caged prisses walking importantly upon England's green (at their appointed time) while deluding themselves with a spurious fantasy of appartenence to humankind present in their mind only, and fed mostly upon the wilful blindness to their most decidedly bovine circumstances.
How does a seventeen year old female end up thinking herself a kind of man, when obviously she's being held on as short a leash as any wild goat by they upon whose property, just like the goat, she grazes ? Just like the goat, she's not made anything of what she eats ; just like the goat she's kept around for milk and eventual sacrifice, with a view to minimizing the damage she does to the property until such a time -- and certainly well fenced in, lest she do damage to the property of others. For, if an ill behaved goat eats its owner's carrots the suffering landlord's only out some carrots, such as were eaten ; whereas if she eats another's carrots there will be proceedings, and an exchange of coinage, most decidedly a greater loss than merely the carrots involved -- even though the goat involved's scarcely capable to evaluate this difference (as chief portion of the natural insensate idiocy that makes it be a goat in the first place).
The third Buller-Podington Compact thus simply and plainly required that any potential match contemplated by one would be required to gladly and joyfully embrace the other in amorous congress, not merely once but as an ongoing and permanent arrangement ; and that the engagement will last as long with the first found until the second is satisfactorily secured ; and finally that the ultimate choice will be left to Chance, each of the two to marry whichever of the two his lot fell to. This third, and (as anyone involved thought at the time -- final) Compact was formally drawn out, in elegant longhand upon the best parchment that could be had, then solemnly (though not without some humour) sworn to, then burned, and its ash released into the world.
It may be supposed that such an extraordinary order would be indeed so tall as to render it moot, in any case irrelevant, for the plain lack of any possibility of it ever being filled, much like asking for not merely one Moon from the very night sky, but the pair of two. This supposition is as false as the notion that such arrangements are at all extraordinary is ridiculous : indeed within a few short weeks of deciding they rather had enough of the distant climes and would prefer returning to the small island, to continue their ongoing contributions to the commercial life of the Empire in more settled circumstances the first match was found, and she was tested thoroughly, to smiling, most content exhaustion, over the course of wide stretched days of bliss.
The second was suggested by the first, before the testing was even complete (though not much before, it may be observed). In fact, they only had to try out two of her friends before encountering a most definitively satisfactory third to become the second their Compact demanded. The girls even gave flesh to the best friends' heretofore vague agreement of "leaving the matching to Chance" : each morning the gentlemen would sit, nude but for their blindfolds, on the comfortable loveseat in Mr. Podington's apartments. The eagerly aspiring wives-to-be would kneel between their legs, and ministrate to their manhoods, using their tongue only -- no kissing, no engulfing, most definiely no sucking or -- God forbid -- swallowing of the entire thing.
Once the protracted proceedings produced its winners, in the shape of the sticky stuff of life adorning the smiling faces of joyous youth, the gents would write down on paper the name of whoever they suspected drove their ejaculation. They did this every morning for little over a week, until the beloved names on paper matched the pretty eyes in thick sauce ; and while it may be confessed that the two devils did indeed often switch their attentions and on occasion even concentrated their tongues upon the same rod, it should be perhaps kept under silence that at least on occasion Mr. Buller did hold Mr. Podington's hand fast, or vice-versa, while twitching in that sweet agony protracted ministration is known to oft engender.
This then resolves the mystery of the otherwise inexplicable collection of eight pieces of yellowing linen paper adorned with names in a scribbling hand kept in conveniently private locations within the respective libraries of Buller and Podington households ; and it is perhaps the better testament of mankind's perversity to notice that there's more than two names included -- though it is equally fair to mention that such variance is in the early, rather than latter section of the set of eight.
"I tell you, William," said Thomas Buller to his friend Mr. Podington, "I am truly sorry about it, but I cannot arrange for it this year. Now, as to my invitation -- that is very different."
"Of course it is different," was the reply, "but I am obliged to say, as I said before, that I really cannot accept it."
Remarks similar to these had been made by the two friends at least once a year for some four or five years, since their return. The reason for this avoidance of each other at their respective rural residences may be briefly stated. Mr. Buller's country house was situated by the sea, as he was very fond of the water. He had a good cat-boat, which he sailed himself with much judgment and skill, and it was his greatest pleasure to take his friends and visitors upon little excursions on the bay. Yet, owing to some unpleasantness during his early trip abroad Mr. Podington was desperately afraid of the water, and he was particularly afraid of any small craft, especially sailed by anyone he knew. If his friend Buller would have at the very least employed a professional mariner, of years' experience and indescript identity, to steer and manage his boat, Podington might have been able to overtake his horror perhaps even to the point of taking an occasional sail; but Buller always insisted upon sailing his own boat, and he certainly'd have not taken kindly to any doubts aspersed upon his indeed flawless ability to do so. Podington would have rather chewed down a fistful of thumbtacks before so insulting his best friend, and consequently he could not bring himself to consent to go to Buller's house by the sea.
However, to receive his good friend Buller at his own house in the beautiful upland region in which he lived would have been a great joy to Mr. Podington ; but Buller could not be induced to visit him there. Ever since his Oxford days Podington had been very fond of horses, and he loved little more than to drive himself, a private delight he indulged with a vengeance since his return, especially given his means permitted him now any choice in beasts of burden (much as his talents would have permitted him earlier any choice in beasts of the hearth -- but, in fairness, comparatively much less choice in terms of this one other animal that so loves man). On the other hand Buller was, for some mysterious reason never actually explained, more afraid of horses than he was of elephants or lions, which is no idle comment, given he had personally confronted both latter dangers, occasionally in overwhelmingly crowded presentations, or without proper weapons, in one word, in the direst of circumstances. Yet he'd have been more willingly caught bare handed in a lion's den than pinned, promenade stick in hand, by a tired old milkman's nag coming apace from the other way upon a narrow street. To one or more horses driven by a coachman of years and experience he did not always object, especially if he did not have to see them ; but to a horse driven by Podington, who had much experience and knowledge regarding mercantile affairs, but was merely an amateur horseman, he most decidedly and strongly objected. Yet he would never have even faintly hinted at his judgement in the matter, lest in hurting his friend's feelings he'd deadly wound himself ; and therefore it was that he had not yet visited the beautiful upland country residence of Mr. Podington.
At last this state of things grew awkward. Mrs. Buller and Mrs. Podington, often with their children, visited each other at their country houses with some frequency, and the threesome enjoyed itself as much as its reduced means allowed ; but the fact remained that either one or the other married lady would inescapably grow wistful at times, which her company would perceive and did regret but could not truly alleviate. Besides, the fact that on these visits the women were never accompanied by their husbands caused more and more gossip among their neighbors, both in the upland country and by the sea ; and so one day in Spring, as the two sat in their city office, where Mr. Podington had just repeated his annual invitation, his friend replied to him thus:
"William, if I come to see you this summer, will you visit me as well? The thing is beginning to look a little ridiculous, and people are talking about it."
Mr. Podington put his hand to his brow and for a few moments closed his eyes. In his mind he saw a cat-boat upon its side, the sails spread out over the water, and two men, almost entirely immersed in the waves, making efforts to reach the side of the boat. One of these was getting on very well -- that was Buller. The other seemed about to sink, his arms were uselessly waving in the air -- that was himself. But he opened his eyes and looked bravely out of the window ; the insanity of the fancy could not hope to escape him, chief of all because in no conceivable case would Buller have done anything besides getting himself drowned trying (and succeeding) to rescue his flailing, hysterical friend from his own idiotic helplessness. In truth the only likely tragic outcome was a very sorry Podington upon the shore, womanly weeping above a stretched-out Buller, thoroughly drowned for absolutely no good reason. But it was time to conquer all this; it was indeed growing ridiculous. Buller had been sailing more years than they knew each other, and never in his life had he been upset.
"Yes," said he; "I must do it. I will do it. I will make myself ready any time you name."
Mr. Buller rose and stretched out his hand.
"Good!" said he; and then, a devilish wink in his eye "It is a compact!"
Thus and therefore was born the fourth Buller-Podington Compact, a matter of perhaps even greater momentum than all the other three combined.
Buller was the first to make the promised country visit. He had not mentioned the subject of horses to his friend, but he knew through Mrs. Buller that Podington still continued to be his own driver. She had informed him, however, that at present he was in general driving a big black horse which, in her opinion, was as gentle and reliable as these animals ever became, and she could not imagine how anybody could be afraid of him. Mrs. Podington assured him in a private encounter that indeed in almost a full year the horse had never caused any accident nor given the slightest hint he has any plans to ; and then, squeezing his hand upon her nude heart, dressed only in her flesh as it was, promised him that should he suffer any harm at all from riding with her husband she'll gladly give herself up, and be his willing slave for a whole week. She closed by adding a loving woman's imprecation that he quit being such a baby. So, when the next morning after his arrival, Mr. Buller was asked by his host if he would like to take a drive, he suppressed a certain rising emotion and said that it would please him more than anything in the world.
When the good black horse had jogged along a pleasant road for half an hour Mr. Buller began to feel that, perhaps, for all these years he had been laboring under a misconception. It seemed to be possible that there were some horses to which surrounding circumstances in the shape of sights and sounds were so irrelevant that they were to a certain degree entirely safe, even when guided and controlled by an amateur hand. As they passed some meadow-land somebody behind a hedge fired a gun ; Mr. Buller was apprehensive, but the horse took no notice.
"William," said Buller, looking cheerfully around him, "I had no idea that you lived in such a pretty country. In fact, I might almost call it beautiful. You have not any wide stretch of water, but here is a pretty river, those rolling hills are very charming, and, beyond, you have the blue of the mountains."
"It is lovely," replied his friend, quite delighted with the way the phenomenological worm was so far turning ; "I never get tired of driving through this country. Of course the seaside is very fine, but here we have such variety of scenery!"
Mr. Buller could not help thinking that sometimes the seaside was perhaps a little monotonous, and that he had lost a great deal of pleasure in so carefully not varying his summers to include going up to spend a week or two with Podington, his wife, and his.
"William," said he, "how long have you had this horse?"
"About a year," said Mr. Podington; "before getting him I used to drive that Arabian pair, you recall."
"Always competing with each other, driving ever harder... What ever became of them ?"
"I sold them." then, after a pause, "Apart."
"That's for the best", said Buller, thinking the alternative was most likely some manner of breaking some assortment of necks just as his friend said "The other alternative was waiting around for them to find some pictoresque way of breaking their own necks ; and probably the driver's into the bargain as well."
Now they came to a place where the stream, by which the road ran, had been dammed for a mill and so widened into a beautiful pond.
"There now!" cried Mr. Buller. "That's what I like. William, you seem to have everything! This is really a very pretty sheet of water. Don't the reflections of the willows over there make a charming picture ? You can't get that at the seaside, you know."
Mr. Podington was delighted; his face glowed; he was rejoiced at the pleasure of his friend. "I tell you, Thomas," said he, "that --"
"William!" exclaimed Buller, with a sudden squirm in his seat, "what is that I hear? Is that a train?"
"Yes," said Mr. Podington, "that is the ten-forty, up."
"Does it come near here?" asked Mr. Buller, nervously. "Does it go over that bridge?"
"Yes," said Podington, "but it can't hurt us, for our road goes under the bridge; we are perfectly safe; there is no risk of accident."
"But your horse! Your horse!" exclaimed Buller, as the train came nearer and nearer. "What will it do?"
"Do?" said Podington; "He'll do nothing ; in any case no more than what he is doing now. He doesn't mind trains."
"But look here, William," exclaimed Buller, "it will get there just as we do; no horse could stand a roaring up in the air like that!"
Podington laughed. "He really won't mind it ; we've been here before, you know." said he.
"Come, come now," cried Buller. "Really, I can't stand this! Just stop a minute, William, and let me get out. It sets all my nerves on end."
Mr. Podington looked at his friend, a devilish spark in his eye. "Oh, you needn't get out," said he; "there's not the least danger in the world. But I don't want to make you nervous, let me turn around and drive the other way."
"But you can't!" screamed Buller. "This road is not wide enough, and that train is nearly here. Please stop!"
The imputation that the road was not wide enough for him to turn was too much for Mr. Podington to bear under the circumstances, as he happened to be rather proud of his long recognized ability to turn just such a vehicle in narrow places.
"Turn!" said he; "that's the easiest thing in the world. See; a little to the right, then a back, then a sweep to the left and we will be going the other way." And instantly he began the maneuver in which he was at some point one of Oxford's celebrated masters.
"Oh, Thomas!" cried Buller, half rising in his seat, "that train is almost here!"
"And we are almost --" Mr. Podington was about to say "turned around," but he stopped. Mr. Buller's exclamations had, to speak frankly, actually made him a little nervous. In his anxiety to turn quickly he had pulled upon his horse's bit with more energy than was actually necessary, or than had ever been his habit. His nervousness was thus communicated to the horse, which had no way to interpret its cause anywhere near truth. The faithful animal, going by frequency rather than meaning, backed with such extraordinary vigour that the hind wheels of the wagon went over a spot of grass on the side of the road and clean into the water. The sudden jolt, joined with his friend's paused speech, gave a new impetus to Mr. Buller's fears.
"You'll upset!" he cried, and, not thinking of what he was about, laid hold of his friend's arm for dear life, like one dangling over an unforgiving precipice, precariously fastened above the open maw of very hell. The horse, startled by this sudden jerk upon his bit, could not help but regard the passing of the train, now thundering suspended on the bridge above, with new eyes. That one salient if ultimately incomprehensible feature of the entire situation, uncommon and unexpected, filtered through the intelligent but ultimately equine brain (for, one must remember, a horse that can count is a remarkable horse, even if an unremarkable mathematician) to drive inescapably the conclusion that something extraordinary was about to happen with that train. Maybe it was about to explode ? Maybe it was finally metamorphizing into its final form ? The horse did not know, but it defensibly assumed his driver would, and so for faith, and reason, and good safety, responded with a sudden and forcible start backward, under the circumstances the only wrong move available because now not only the hind wheels of the light wagon, but the fore wheels and the poor horse's own own hind legs went into the water. As the bank at this spot sloped steeply, the wagon continued to go backward, despite the efforts of the agitated horse to find a footing on the crumbling edge of the bank.
"Whoa!" cried Mr. Buller.
"Pull! Pull!" exclaimed Mr. Podington, applying his whip upon the plunging beast.
But neither exclamations nor castigations included room for any possible effect. The original bed of the stream ran close to the road, and the bank was so steep and the earth so soft that it was impossible for the horse to maintain its footing, let alone advance. Back, back they all together slid, until the whole equipage was in the water and the wagon was afloat.
The vehicle now being baptized through the joint efforts of the two friends had nevertheless been originally intended as a road wagon. It had no top, yet the joints of its box-body were tight enough to prevent the water from immediately entering it ; somewhat deeply sunken, it rested upon the water. There was a current in this part of the pond and it drove the wagon downstream, turning it by degrees. The horse was now entirely immersed in the water, with the exception of his head and the upper part of his neck ; unable to place hoof upon the bottom it made vigorous and passingly effectual efforts to swim.
Mr. Podington, the reins and whip in his hands, sat horrified and pale ; the accident had been so sudden and for that matter if not exactly incompehensible in any case so difficult to even put in words, he was shaken and perhaps so startled as to almost approach the gates of fright. In any case he stood silent. Mr. Buller, on the other hand, was now lively and alert. The wagon had no sooner floated away from the shore than he felt himself at home. He was upon his favorite element ; water carried no fears for him. He saw that his friend was perhaps a little ways off from his finest, sharpest shape and thereby judged that he must now step up to such helm as could be had and take charge of the vessel such as it found itself. He stood up and gazed about him.
"Put her across stream!" he shouted; "she can't make headway against this current. Head her to that clump of trees on the other side; the bank is lower there, and we can beach her. Move a little the other way, we must trim boat. Now then, pull on your starboard rein."
In the faint sound of rusting metal the wordless mechanism previously known as Mr. Podington mechanically obeyed, and the horse slightly changed his direction.
"You see," said Buller, "it won't do to sail straight across, because the current would carry us down and land us below that spot."
Mr. Podington said nothing; but he expected at every moment to see his horse sink into a watery grave.
"Not so bad after all, is it, Podington? If we had a rudder and a bit of a sail it would be a great help to the poor horse. This wagon is almost a practicable boat."
The despairing Podington looked at his feet. "It's coming in," he said in a husky voice. "Thomas, the water is over my shoes!"
"That is so," said Buller. "I am so used to water I didn't notice it. She leaks. Do you carry anything to bail her out with?"
"Bail!" cried Podington, now finding his voice. "I must look where I keep my ogre swatters and the pixie cages for something to bail water out a carriage. Oh, Thomas, we are sinking!"
"That's so," said Buller; "she leaks like a sieve. You'll need some tar before you take her out again, old chap."
The weight of the running-gear and of the two men was entirely too much for the limited (and, to be fair, entirely unintentional) buoyancy of the wagon body. The water rapidly rose toward the top of its sides.
"We are going to drown!" cried Podington, suddenly rising.
"Lick him! Lick him!" exclaimed Buller. "Make him swim faster!"
Podington turned to his friend, a perfect if somewhat pale mask of "are you an idiot ?" imprinted upon his face. The horse was a good foot underwater in all relevant parts ; not even famous Xerxes, the patron saint of whipping Nereids as a recreational activity had ever devised whips quite as effective as all that. At length he enunciated with some difficulty something along the lines of never having imagined it possible that he should be drowned in his own wagon.
"Whoop!" cried Buller, as the water rose over the sides. "Steady yourself, old boy, or you'll go overboard!" And the next moment the wagon body sunk out of sunlight and into watery shade.
But it did not go down very far. The deepest part of the channel of the stream had been passed, and with a slight bump the wheels did presently strike the bottom.
"Heavens!" exclaimed Buller, "we are aground."
"Aground!" exclaimed Podington. "Aground!" he said again, a perfectly deranged expression on his face.
As the two men stood up in the submerged wagon the water was above their knees. When Podington looked out over the surface of the pond, now so near his face, it seemed like a sheet of water he had never seen before. It was something horrible, threatening to rise and envelop him. He trembled to such a degree he could scarcely keep his footing.
"William," said his companion, "you must sit down; if you don't, you'll tumble overboard and be drowned. There is nothing for you to hold to."
"Sit down," said Podington, gazing blankly at the water around him, "I can't do anything like that!"
At this moment the horse gave a slight start. Having finally touched bottom after his exertions in swimming across the main bed of the stream with a floating wagon in tow, he had stood for a few moments, his head and neck well above water, his back barely visible beneath the surface, drawing its breath. Having recovered somewhat, he now thought it was time to move on.
At the first step of the horse Mr. Podington began to totter like something about to give under a lot of steam pressure. Instinctively he clutched Buller.
"Sit down!" cried the latter, "or you'll have us both overboard." There was no helping it ; down sat Mr. Podington in the embracing blue, weeping quietly a very short distance, directly into the waterline above the second button of his vest -- likely the shortest trip any tears ever had to travel in this world.
"Ough!" said he after a time. "Thomas, shout for help."
"No use doing that," replied Buller, still standing on his nautical legs; "I don't see anybody, and I don't see any boat. We'll get out all right. Just you stick tight to the thwart."
"The what?" feebly asked the other.
"Oh, the seat, I mean. We can get to the shore all right if you steer the horse straight. Head him more across the pond."
"I can't head him," said Podington, the resignation of a defeated man in his voice. "I have dropped the reins!"
"Good gracious!" cried Mr. Buller, "that's not good. Can't you steer him by shouting 'Gee' and 'Haw'?"
"No," said Podington, "he isn't an ox. But perhaps I can stop him." And with as much voice as he could summon, he called out: "Whoa!" and the horse stood still in its tracks.
"If you can't steer him any other way," said Buller, "we must get the reins. Lend me your whip."
"I have dropped that too," said Podington; "there it floats."
"Oh, dear," said Buller, "I guess I'll have to dive for them; if he were to run away, we should be in an awful fix."
"Don't get out! Don't get out!" exclaimed Podington. "You can reach over the dashboard."
"As that's under water," said Buller, "it will be the same thing as diving; but it's got to be done, and I'll try it. Don't you move now; I am more used to water than you are."
Mr. Buller took off his hat and asked his friend to hold it. He thought in passing of his watch and other contents of his pockets, but there was no place to put them anyway, and so he gave them no more consideration. Then bravely getting on his knees in the water, he leaned over the dashboard, almost disappearing from sight. With his disengaged hand Mr. Podington grasped fast at the submerged coat-tails of his friend.
In a few seconds the upper part of Mr. Buller rose from the water. He was dripping and puffing, and Mr. Podington could not but think what a difference it made in the appearance of his friend to have his hair plastered close to his head.
"I got hold of one of them," said the sputtering Buller, "but it was fast to something and I couldn't get it loose."
"Was it thick and wide?" asked Podington.
"Yes," was the answer; "rather."
"Oh, that was a trace," said Podington; "I don't want that; the reins are thin and much lighter."
"Now I remember they are," said Buller. "I'll go down again."
Again Mr. Buller leaned over the dashboard, and this time he remained down longer, and when he came up he puffed and sputtered more than before.
"Is this it?" said he, holding up a strip of wet leather.
"Yes," said Podington, "you've got the reins."
"Well, take them, and steer. I would have found them sooner if his tail had not got into my eyes. That long tail's floating down there and spreading itself out like a fan; it tangled itself all around my head. This trip would have worked out much easier had he been a bob-tailed horse."
"I'm sorry I did not foresee that, indeed." offered Podington wryly. "Now then, take your hat, Thomas, and I'll try to drive."
Mr. Buller put on his hat, which was the only thing besides his humour still dry about him while a somewhat nervous Podington started the horse so suddenly that even the sea-legs of Buller were surprised, and he came very near going backward into the water ; but recovering himself, he sat down, without his hat.
"I don't wonder you did not like to do this, William," said he. "Wet as I am, it's ghastly!"
Encouraged by his master's voice, and by the feeling of the familiar hand upon his bit returning by degrees, the horse moved bravely on.
But the bottom was very rough and uneven. Sometimes the wheels struck a large stone, terrifying Mr. Buller, who thought they were going to upset; and sometimes they sank into soft mud, horrifying Mr. Podington, who thought they were going to drown. Thus proceeding, they presented an entirely novel sight. At first Mr. Podington held his hands above the water as he drove, but he soon found this awkward, and dropped them to their usual position, so that nothing was visible above the water but the head and neck of a horse and the heads and shoulders of two men, all arranged in such a way as might remind the viewer of a road-borne equipage.
Now the ghost wagon came to a low place in the bottom, and even Mr. Buller shuddered as the water rose to his chin. Podington gave a howling, piercing shriek of horror to make the most accomplished banshee proud. The water stopped, and for a brief moment looked as it was preparing to freeze over. The horse, with high, uplifted head, was obliged to swim. At this moment a boy with a gun came strolling along the road, and hearing Mr. Podington's cry, he cast his eyes over the water. Instinctively he raised his weapon to his shoulder, and then, in an instant, perceiving that the objects he beheld were not aquatic birds, he threw his gun overhead and took to flight, yelling and flailing his arms, his path a succession of elegant arabesque patterns more or less in the approximate direction of the mill.
By good fortune the hollow in the bottom was a narrow one ; once it was passed the depth of the water monotonically decreased. By and by the back of the horse came into view, then the dashboard became visible, and the bodies as well as the spirits of the two men rapidly rose. Now there was vigorous splashing and tugging, and then a jet black horse, shining as if he had been newly varnished, pulled a dripping wagon containing two well-soaked men upon a shelving shore.
"Oh, I am chilled to the bones!" said Podington.
"I should think so," replied his friend; "if you have got to be wet, it is a great deal pleasanter under the water."
There was a field-road on this side of the pond which Podington well knew, and proceeding along it they came to the bridge and got into the main road.
"Now we must get home as fast as we can," cried Podington, "or we shall both take cold. I wish I hadn't lost my whip. Hi now! Get along!"
Podington was now full of life and energy : his wheels on the hard road, he was himself again. When he found his head was finally turned toward home, the horse set off at a great rate.
"Hi there!" cried Podington. "I am so sorry I lost my whip."
"Whip!" said Buller, holding fast to the side of the seat; "surely you don't want him to go any faster than this. And look here, William," he added, "it seems to me we are much more likely to take cold in our wet clothes if we rush through the air in this way. Really, it seems to me that horse is running away."
"Not a bit of it," cried Podington. "He wants to get home, and he wants his dinner. Isn't he a fine horse? Look how he steps out!"
"Steps out!" said Buller, "I think I'd like to step out myself. Don't you think it would be wiser for me to walk home, William? That will warm me up."
"It will take you over an hour," said his friend. "Stay where you are, and I'll have you in Mary's warming embrace within fifteen minutes. Less, really, if it can at all be helped."
So Mr. Buller sat as best he could, holding his body down with both hands, knuckles white from the force of the grip ; and his spirit with memory and imagination of womanly salvation soon within reach. It was, in a certain sense, an uneventful trip.
"I tell you, William," said Mr. Buller, as the two sat smoking afterwards, "what you ought to do; you should never go out driving without a life-preserver and a pair of oars; I always take them. It would make you feel safer."
Mr. Buller did not go out of the house the next day, or indeed for the remainder of the week, at least in part because Mr. Podington's clothes did not fit him and his own outdoor suit was so shrunken as to be uncomfortable. There were perhaps other reasons, to do with a certain renewed appreciation for daily activities that real or even merely perceived impeding doom greatly rekindles in mankind. But be that as it may, he had in any case not forgotten his compact with his friend ; so, in the course of a week upon his return he wrote to Podington, inviting him to spend some days with him. Mr. Podington of course accepted, as he was a man of honor who, in spite of his recent unfortunate water experience, could not break his word, so he duly arrived at Mr. Buller's seaside home at the time appointed.
Early on the morning after his arrival, before the family were up, Mr. Podington went out and strolled down to the edge of the bay. He went specifically to look for Buller's boat. He was well aware that he would be asked to take a sail, and it was out of the question he'd successfully decline ; but he must see the boat. There was a train back to London at a quarter past seven ; Buller could from experience be trusted to entertain both women by himself for short stretches at a time ; if he were not on the premises he could not be asked to sail, and if Buller's boat were a little, flimsy thing, he would not be on the premises, come of it what may, maybe. Yet for now he'd wait and see -- specifically, he'd see the boat.
There was only one small boat anchored near the beach, and a man -- by all appearance a fisherman -- informed Mr. Podington that it belonged to Mr. Buller. Podington looked at it eagerly ; it was not all that small and looked not in the slightest flimsy.
"Do you consider that a safe boat?" he asked the fisherman.
"Safe?" replied the man. "Aye, safe, safe as can be had. You could not upset her if you tried. Look at the breadth of beam! Good wood, well made, I say you could go visit the Boers in that boat! Are you thinking of buying her?"
The idea that he would think of buying a boat made Mr. Podington laugh ; which the other took for justly deserved appreciation of his humorous aside. But in truth it was the information that it would be impossible to upset the little vessel that had greatly cheered him, such that he could laugh again.
Shortly after breakfast Mr. Buller, like a nurse with a dose of medicine, with Mrs. Buller hanging on his right arm, and with Mrs. Podington hanging on his other right arm, came before Mr. Podington, and proffered the expected invitation to take a sail. They all burst out laughing, and Mr. Podington followed his friend out of doors.
"Now, William," said his host, "I understand perfectly your feeling about boats, and what I wish to prove to you is that it is a feeling without any foundation in reality, but entirely of the mind. I don't want to shock you or make you nervous, so I am not going to take you out today on the bay in my boat. You are as safe on the bay as you would be on land -- a little safer, perhaps, under certain circumstances which we shall not now go into -- but still it is sometimes a little rough under the wind, and this, at first, might cause you some unjustified alarm. So I am going to begin your education in the sailing line on as perfectly smooth water as can be had outside a cup. About three miles back of us there is a very pretty lake several miles long. It is part of the canal system which connects the town with the railroad. I have sent my boat to the town, and we can walk up there and go by the canal to the lake; it is only about three miles."
If he had to sail at all, this kind of sailing suited Mr. Podington first rate. A canal, a quiet lake, and a boat which could not be upset, the trifecta of nautical tolerability -- perhaps only a giant glass bowl overhead to keep out the wind still missing. When they reached the town the boat was in the canal, ready for them.
"Now," said Mr. Buller, "you get in and make yourself comfortable. My idea is to hitch on to a canal-boat and have it tow us to the lake. The boats generally start about this time in the morning ; I will go right now and see about it."
Mr. Podington, under the hen-like care of his good friend, took a seat in the stern of the sailboat, and then remarked:
"Thomas, have you a life-preserver on board? You know I am not much used to this kind of vessel, and I am clumsy. Nothing need happen to the boat, but I might trip and fall overboard just by myself, and... and I can't swim."
"All right," said Buller; "here's a life-preserver. It is a little bulky perhaps, but at your leisure put it on. I want you to feel perfectly safe, and if it gets too hot you can just as well take it off yourself. Now I will go and see about the tow."
Unfortunately Mr. Buller found soon thereafter that the canal-boats would not start at their usual time on that day ; the loading of one of them was not yet finished, and he was informed that he might have to wait for at the least an hour, and maybe even more. This did not suit Mr. Buller very well, not for himself so much but thinking of his friend, stuck in that cork carapace on the boat for well over an hour -- as he fully did not expect Mr. Podington will ever take the life preserver off, for love or money, not on that day at all and, perhaps, just maybe, who knows... not ever again. He did not hesitate to show his annoyance.
"I'll tell you, sir, what you might do," said one of the men in charge of the boats, "if you don't want to wait 'till such as we are ready to go off, I'll let you have a boy and a horse to tow you up to the lake. That won't cost you very much, and I'll have them back before we want 'em."
A bargain was quickly made, and Mr. Buller joyfully returned to his boat with the intelligence that they were not to wait for the canal-boats. A long rope, with a horse attached to the other end of it, was speedily made fast to the boat, and with a boy at the head of the horse, they started up the canal.
"Now this is the kind of sailing I like," said Mr. Podington muchly relieved. "If I lived near a canal I believe I would buy a boat and train my horse to tow. I could even have a long pair of rope-lines, and then drive him myself ; then when the roads were rough and bad the canal would still always be smooth."
"This is all very nice," replied Mr. Buller, who sat by the tiller to keep the boat away from the bank, "and I am glad to see you in a boat under any circumstances. I confess I did not realise it would be the canal, thinking as I was of the lake ; but I see now that indeed there could not have been a better way to begin your sailing education. Here we glide along, slowly and gently, with no possible thought of danger, for if the boat should somehow suddenly spring a leak, for no reason and out of nowhere, or if some monster of the deep were to raise its towering tentacles and make for us, both of which about as likely contingencies, why... all we would have to do would be to step on shore. I full expect that by the time you get to the end of the canal you will like this gentle motion so much that you will be perfectly ready to begin the second stage of your nautical education."
"Yes, I should hope..." started Mr. Podington. "How long did you say this canal is?"
"About three miles," answered his friend. "Then we will go into the lock and in a few minutes we shall be on the lake."
"So far as I am concerned," said Mr. Podington, "I wish the canal were twelve miles long. I cannot imagine anything pleasanter than this. If I lived anywhere near a canal -- a long canal, I mean, this one is too short -- I'd --"
"Come, come now," interrupted Buller. "Don't be content to stay in the primary school just because it is the easiest. When we get on the lake I will show you that in a boat, with a gentle breeze, such as in most likelihood we are to have today, you will find the motion quite as pleasing, and ever so much more inspiriting. I should not be a bit surprised, William, if after you have been two or three times on the lake you will ask me -- yes, positively ask me -- to take you out on the bay!"
Mr. Podington smiled, and leaning backward, he looked up at the beautiful blue sky.
"You can't give me anything better than this, Thomas," said he; "but you needn't think I am weakening ; you drove with me, and I will sail with you."
The thought came into Buller's mind that he had done both of these things with Podington, but he did not wish to press the point.
About half a mile from the town there stood a small cottage where house-cleaning was underway, on such a grand and total scale as the limited expanse of the establishment altogether permitted. On a fence, directly facing the canal and not very far off, was hung a carpet gaily adorned with stripes and spots of red and yellow.
When the drowsy tow-horse came abreast of the house, a gale of wind impressed upon the drying carpet almost a personality of its own ; this development caught the eye of the horse, who suddenly stopped and gave a start toward the canal. Thereupon, no doubt impressed with a horror of the glaring apparition ever growing in his mind, the poor horse gathered himself up and with a bound dashed forward along the tow-path. The astounded boy gave a shout, but both he and his shout were speedily left behind. The boat of Mr. Buller shot forward as if she had been fired out of the cannon of a larger boat.
The terrified horse sped on as if a red and yellow demon were after him, to gnaw at his very soul and bonemarrow. The boat following close behind bounded, and plunged, and frequently struck the grassy bank of the canal, as if it had no greater aspiration than to forthwith break itself to toothpicks. Mr. Podington clutched the boom unsteadily to keep himself from being thrown out, while Mr. Buller, both hands upon the tiller, frantically endeavored to keep the boat away from the bank.
"William!" he screamed, "he is running off with us; we shall be dashed to pieces! Can't you get forward and cast off that line?"
"What do you mean?" cried Podington, as the boom gave a great jerk, seemingly to promise breaking its fastenings, and dragging him overboard.
"I mean untie the tow-line. We'll be smashed if you don't! I can't leave this tiller. Don't try to stand up; hold on to the boom and creep forward. Steady now, or you'll be overboard!"
Mr. Podington stumbled to the bow of the boat, his efforts greatly impeded by the big cork life-preserver tied under his arms. The motion of the boat was so violent and erratic that he was obliged to hold on to the mast with one arm, and to try to loosen the knot with the other ; but there was a great strain on the rope, and he could do nothing with one hand.
"Cut it! Cut it!" cried Mr. Buller.
Mr. Podington shuffled through his pockets for a while, in a complicated dance with the life preserver apparently bent on blocking all access. Eventually he produced a tiny folding knife, which he nearly lost out of his hand twice while trying to get open with only one hand ; at length he attempted to apply the blade upon the taut tow-line, but if his rate of progress was anything at all then in all certainty cutting clear through the whole thing would have taken upwards of three weeks -- nor did he seem to always be applying the blade upon the same place on the rope. As hopeless as it proceeded, the matter was laid to rest more definitively in short order, when a particular jerk of the boat so pushed the rope as to fling the little tool clearly out of his hand ; with a barely audible (or perhaps merely imagined) "plop!" it was gone for good.
Mr. Buller was well touched ; his boat was cutting through the water at a rate no vessel of her class had seen since sail-boats were first invented, and bumping against the bank as if trying to learn the finer points of billiards. He forgot he was in a boat; he only knew that for the first time in his life he was in a runaway. He let go the tiller. It was of no use to him.
"William," he cried, "let us jump out the next time we are near enough to shore!"
"Don't do that! Don't do that!" replied Podington. "Don't jump out in a runaway; that is the main way to get hurt. Stick to your seat, my boy; he can't keep this up much longer. He'll lose his wind!"
Mr. Podington was also greatly touched, but not in the exact manner Buller was. He had been in a runaway before, and he could not help thinking how much better a wagon was than a boat for such an activity. The boat did not really offer nearly enough friction ; the horse would have been long exhausted if any wheels had been involved at all.
"If he were hitched up closer and I had a snaffle-bit and a stout pair of reins," thought he, "I could soon bring him up."
Mr. Buller on the other hand was rapidly losing his composure. The horse seemed to be going faster than ever. The boat bumped harder and harder against the bank, and at one time Buller thought they could actually turn over. Suddenly a thought struck him.
"William," he shouted, "tip that anchor over the side! Throw it in, any way!"
Mr. Podington looked about him, and, almost under his feet, saw the anchor. He did not instantly comprehend why Buller wanted it thrown overboard, but this was not a time to ask questions. The difficulties imposed by the life-preserver, and the necessity of holding on with one hand, interfered very much with his getting at the anchor and throwing it over the side, but at last he succeeded, and just as the boat threw up her bow as if she were about to jump on shore, the anchor went out and its line shot after it. There was an irregular trembling of the boat as the anchor struggled along the bottom of the canal; then there was a great shock; the boat ran lightly into the bank and stopped there ; the tow-line was tightened like a string, giving out a one note dirge, and the horse, jerked back with great violence, came tumbling in a heap upon the ground.
Instantly Mr. Podington was on the shore and running at the top of his speed toward the horse. The astounded animal had scarcely begun to struggle to his feet when Podington rushed upon him, pressed his head back to the ground, and sat upon it.
"Hurrah!" he cried, waving his hat above his head. "Get out, get out at your leisure Buller. He is all right now!"
Presently Mr. Buller approached, somewhat shaken up.
"All right?" he said. "I never thought to call a horse flat in the road with a man seated on his head all right before ; but hold him down 'till we get him loose from whatever's left of my boat. That is the thing to do. William, cast him loose from the boat before you let him up! What will he do when he gets up?"
"Oh. he'll be quiet enough when he gets up," said Podington, patting the horse on the side of his neck. "If you've got a knife you can cut his traces -- I mean that rope -- but no, you needn't. Here comes the boy. We'll settle this business in very short order now."
When the horse was on his feet again, and all connection between the wild animal and the peacible sailboat had been undone, Mr. Podington gazed critically upon his friend.
"Thomas," said he, "you seem to have had a rough time of it. Somewhere you must've lost your hat, and otherwise you look as if you had been on the losing side of a domestic argument."
"Mary never gave me anywhere near as much trouble as this insane notion of sailing by horse" ; then, with a look at his friend, "Nor Jane... not nearly, anyhow."
Now approached the boy. "Shall I hitch him on again, sir?" said he. "He's quiet enough, now."
"No," cried Mr. Buller; "I want no more sailing after a horse, and, besides, we can't go on the lake with that boat; she has been battered about so much that she must have opened a dozen seams. The best thing for us is to walk home."
Mr. Podington readily agreed with his friend, walking seemed at least for a while the ideal conveyance. The boat was examined and found to be leaking, but not very badly, and when her mast had been unshipped and everything had been made tight and right on board, she was pulled out of the way of tow-lines and boats, and made fast until she could be sent for from the town.
Mr. Buller and Mr. Podington started upon their trek back home. They had not yet gone very far when they met a party of boys, who, upon seeing them, burst into unseemly laughter.
"Mister," cried one of them, "you needn't be afraid of tumbling into the canal. Why don't you take off your life-preserver and let the other man put it on his head?"
The two friends looked at each other and, after a brief moment could not help joining in the laughter of the boys.
"By George! I forgot all about this," said Podington, as he unfastened the cork jacket. "It does look a little over-timid to wear a life-preserver just because one happens to be walking by the side of a canal."
Mr. Buller tied a handkerchief on his head, thereby gaining a distinctly buccaneerish appearance ; Mr. Podington rolled up his life-preserver and carried it under his arm. Thus they reached the town, where Buller bought a hat, Podington dispensed with his bundle, and arrangements were made to bring back the boat.
"Runaway in a sailboat!" exclaimed one of the canal boatmen when he had heard about the accident. "Upon my word! That beats anything that could happen to a man!"
"No, it doesn't," replied Mr. Buller, quietly. "I have gone to the bottom in a foundered road-wagon."
The man looked at him fixedly for a second.
"Was you ever caught in quick-sand with your balloon?" he asked.
"Not yet," replied Mr. Buller.
It required ten days to put Mr. Buller's sailboat into proper condition, and for ten days Mr. Podington stayed with his friend, his wife, and his wife. He enjoyed his visit very much. They strolled on the beach, they took long walks in the back country, they fished from the end of a pier, they smoked, they talked, they did it all and they were happy, and content.
"Thomas," said Mr. Podington, on the last evening of his stay, "I have enjoyed myself very much since I have been down here, and now, Thomas, if I were to come down again next summer, would you mind -- would you mind, not --"
"I would not mind it a bit," replied Buller, promptly. "I'll never so much as mention it ; so you can come along without a thought of it. And since you have alluded to the subject, William," he continued, "I'd like very much to come and see you again; you know my visit was a very short one this year. That is a beautiful country you live in. Such a variety of scenery, such an opportunity for walks and rambles! But, William, if you could only make up your mind not to --"
"Oh, that is all right!" exclaimed Podington. "I do not need to make up my mind. You come to my country house at your ease ; for you will never so much as hear of it. Here's my hand upon it!"
"And here's mine!" said Mr. Buller.
And the two friends shook hands over their final compact.