All along the soaked towing-path lay strewn the horns, the rattles, the motor-hooters, that the youths had flung aside before they leapt. Here and there among these relics stood dazed elder men, staring through the storm. There was one of them—a grey-beard—who stripped off his blazer, plunged, grabbed at some live man, grappled him, was dragged under. He came up again further along stream, swam choking to the bank, clung to the grasses. He whimpered as he sought foot-hold in the slime. It was ill to be down in that abominable sink of death.
Abominable, yes, to them who discerned there death only; but sacramental and sweet enough to the men who were dying there for love. Any face that rose was smiling.
The thunder receded; the rain was less vehement: the boats and the oars had drifted against the banks. And always the patient river bore its awful burden towards Iffley.
As on the towing-path, so on the youth-bereft rafts of the barges, yonder, stood many stupefied elders, staring at the river, staring back from the river into one another’s faces.
Dispeopled now were the roofs of the barges. Under the first drops of the rain most of the women had come huddling down for shelter inside; panic had presently driven down the rest. Yet on one roof one woman still was. A strange, drenched figure, she stood bright-eyed in the dimness; alone, as it was well she should be in her great hour; draining the lees of such homage as had come to no woman in history recorded.
Artistically, there is a good deal to be said for that old Greek friend of ours, the Messenger; and I dare say you blame me for having, as it were, made you an eye-witness of the death of the undergraduates, when I might so easily have brought some one in to tell you about it after it was all over... Some one? Whom? Are you not begging the question? I admit there were, that evening in Oxford, many people who, when they went home from the river, gave vivid reports of what they had seen. But among them was none who had seen more than a small portion of the whole affair. Certainly, I might have pieced together a dozen of the various accounts, and put them all into the mouth of one person. But credibility is not enough for Clio’s servant. I aim at truth. And so, as I by my Zeus-given incorporeity was the one person who had a good view of the scene at large, you must pardon me for having withheld the veil of indirect narration.
“Too late,” you will say if I offer you a Messenger now. But it was not thus that Mrs. Batch and Katie greeted Clarence when, lamentably soaked with rain, that Messenger appeared on the threshold of the kitchen. Katie was laying the table-cloth for seven o’clock supper. Neither she nor her mother was clairvoyante. Neither of them knew what had been happening. But, as Clarence had not come home since afternoon-school, they had assumed that he was at the river; and they now assumed from the look of him that something very unusual had been happening there. As to what this was, they were not quickly enlightened. Our old Greek friend, after a run of twenty miles, would always reel off a round hundred of graphic verses unimpeachable in scansion. Clarence was of degenerate mould. He collapsed on to a chair, and sat there gasping; and his recovery was rather delayed than hastened by his mother, who, in her solicitude, patted him vigorously between the shoulders.
“Let him alone, mother, do,” cried Katie, wringing her hands.