“Will you dine in town to-night, sir?” asked Alphonse, who was cleaning a stack of brushes.
“Yes, oh, yes,” Jack answered. “You can go when you have finished.”
Whatever may have been his intention when he left the studio, Jack did not cross the park toward the District Railway station. He walked slowly to the high-road, and then westward with brisker step. He struck down through Gunnersbury, by way of Sutton Court, and came out at the river close to the lower end of Strand-on-the-Green.
A girl was sitting on a bench near the shore, pensively watching the sun drooping over the misty ramparts of Kew Bridge; she held a closed book in one hand, and by her side lay a sketching-block and a box of colors. She heard the young artist’s footsteps, and glanced up. A lovely blush suffused her countenance, and for an instant she was speechless. Then, with less confusion, with the candor of an innocent and unconventional nature, she said:
“I am so glad to see you, Mr. Vernon.”
“That is kind of you,” Jack replied, with a smile.
“Yes, I wanted to thank you—”
“Your father has written to me.”
“But that is different. I wanted to thank you for myself.”
“I wish I were deserving of such gratitude,” said Jack, thinking that the girl looked far more charming than when he had first seen her.
“Ah, don’t say that. You know that you saved my life. I am a good swimmer, but that morning my clothes seemed to drag me down.”
“I am glad that I happened to be near at the time,” Jack replied, as he seated himself without invitation on the bench. “But it is not a pleasant topic—let us not talk about it.”
“I shall never forget it,” the girl answered softly. She was silent for a moment, and then added gravely: “It is so strange to know you. I admire artists so much, and I saw your picture in last year’s Academy. How surprised I was when I read your card!”
“You paint, yourself, Miss Foster?”
“No, I only try to. I wish I could.”
She reluctantly yielded her block of Whatman’s paper to Jack, and in the portfolio attached to it he found several sketches that showed real promise. He frankly said as much, to his companion’s delight, and then the conversation turned on the quaintness of Strand-on-the-Green, and the constant and varied beauty of the river at this point—a subject that was full of genuine interest to both. When the sun passed below the bridge the girl suddenly rose and gathered her things.
“I must go,” she said. “My father is coming home early to-day. Good-by, Mr. Vernon.”
“Not really good-by. I hope?”
An expression of sorrow and pain, almost pitiful, clouded her lovely face. Jack understood the meaning of it, and hated Stephen Foster in his heart.
“I shall see you here sometimes?” he added.
“Then you do not forbid me to come again?”