On The River
"Water-Rat," said Vin, jerking his head in the direction of the bank. His mother looked round just in time to see the bright eyes and sleek furry body before it disappeared behind a clump of reeds.
"Oof!" said Clem. "Let's take it a bit easier. You're in training and I'm not. I'd forgotten how far it was to Aunt Hetty's by river."
"It's only about a mile now, " said Vin, slacking off a little. Mrs. Miniver, lying back and trailing one hand in the water, wondered what Vin thought of, consciously or subconsciously, when he said the word "mile." Probably the stretch of road between the house and the village at his grandfather's; that was where they had spent most of their summer holidays when he was small, before they bought Starlings. "It's just a mile to the post office," somebody was certain to have said in his hearing: so that from then onwards, for the rest of his life, all his miles would be measured against that one. Judy's private mile, most likely, was the cart-track through the fields from Starlings to Brickwall Farm -- her favourite walk. Toby's might be this, too, eventually, but Toby was not yet mile-conscious. He still measured his distances by true and not by artificial reckoning: he knew quite well that Brickwall Farm was a long way off when you were tired and no distance at all when you weren't. It was the same with time. "Ten minutes," for Mrs. Miniver herself, would always mean the length of the mid-morning break in her lessons with her first governess; and "an hour" was the formal time after tea in her grandmother's drawing-room, in a clean frock and sash.
Aunt Hetty was sitting in her summer-house at the water's edge, knitting a sock and keeping a look-out for them. They moored the boat at her little landing-stage and stepped ashore.
"My dears! Lovely to see you, " said Aunt Hetty, rolling up her wool and impaling the ball on her needles as though she was skewering a piece of mutton to make a shashlik. "Come along -- we're having tea in the strawberry-bed."
"In the strawberry-bed?"
"Yes. It's a new idea that occurred to me last time Vin was here. You know how much better they always taste when you eat them straight off the plants? Only the drawback is, there's never any cream and sugar. So I thought, why not take the cream and sugar under the nets with us? We tried it, and it's a capital plan. I can't imagine why I never thought of it before." She took Vin's arm and led the way across the lawn. The others followed, exchanging telegraphically, with a smile, their amused affection for Aunt Hetty. Glorious woman: nobody else would have had an idea like that -- or rather, nobody else would have put it seriously and efficiently into practice, complete with table, chairs, silver tea-pot, and cucumber sandwiches. She had even had the nets heightened on poles to give more head-room.
When tea was over, Vin took Clem off to show him the place where he had hooked (but lost) a monster trout the week before. With any luck, he said, it might still be there.
"Sure to be, "said Clem. "I don't mind betting it's the same one I used to see. They're immortal, these Thames trout."
Mrs. Miniver and Aunt Hetty strolled down to the summer-house again.
"My supply of great-nephews is running low," said Aunt Hetty, unskewering the shashlik. "Margaret's youngest boy leaves at the end of this half, and then I shall only have Vin. And when he leaves, I suppose there'll be a two years' gap before Toby comes."
"I'm afraid so. Although from a financial point of view that's rather a relief."
Aunt Hetty snorted.
"From an aunt's point of view it's unpardonable. Between the lot of you, you ought to have arranged things better. What on earth d'you think I'm here for, I should like to know?"
To be a pattern and example to all aunts, thought Mrs. Miniver; to be a delight to boys and a comfort to their parents; and to show that at least one daughter in every generation ought to remain unmarried, raise the profession of auntship to a fine art, and make a point of having a house within the five-mile limit, preferably between Boveney and Queen's Eyot.
Aunt Hetty threw a piece of cake to a swan. She always brought some down for them after tea.
"Not that I like swans," she admitted. "But they're one's neighbours, and I think it's best to keep in with them."
"I know. Conceited brutes. They always look as though they'd just been reading their own fan-mail."
It was not long before the others came back. They had seen the trout, and Clem swore that it had looked up and given him a leer of recognition.
"We'll have to be going," said Vin regretfully. "There isn't a Queen's Eyot Absence to-day, worse luck."
Looking back as they rounded the next bend of the river, they could see Aunt Hetty still waving good-bye to them, sock in hand, the sun glinting on her needles.
It had been a lovely afternoon, thought Mrs. Miniver as they moved smoothly downstream between the low green banks. In most parts of England this was the season of the year that she liked the least -- this ripe, sultry time when the trees were no longer jade but malachite, and the hedges looked almost black against the pale parched fields. In the country round Starlings, especially, spring was the real apex of the year. Summer was bathos, dégringolade: one waited longingly for autumn, which would bring back colour and magic. But in this sort of landscape, high summer was the perfect time. Here, the grass of the water-meadows was fresh, cool, and green; the steady onward sweep of the river, the quivering reflections in its depths and the play of light on its surface, gave movement and variety, so that one felt none of that brooding stillness which mars July in unwatered countrysides. Even the rank and ramping vegetation of summer (such a come-down, in most places, after the delicate miraculous experiments of spring) seemed here to be superbly appropriate, like large jewellery on a fine, bold, handsome woman. Down by the water's edge there were coarse clumps of comfrey and fig-wort, hemp agrimony and giant dock; on the banks, a tangle of vetch and convolvulus, moon-daisies, yarrow, and bedstraw; while from higher up still came the heavy, heady sweetness of elder flowers.
"Gosh!" said Vin suddenly, after a long spell of silence. "Long Leave's the end of next week. This half seems to have gone most frightfully quick."
"Summer halves do," said Clem.