Being boys of an age when food once eaten was at once forgotten, Roberts and Bracy dawdled far too long over breakfast, devouring sausages with a wild eagerness late into the morning. When the door opened to admit a lady of some thirty years, possessed of imperious gaze and fashionable dress, both boys leapt to their feet at once.
"Mother," said Roberts, dutifully kissing her cheek.
"Good morning, Mrs Roberts," said Bracy, his boyish face blushing at she bent her gaze upon him. He found her quite formidable, though never had he attempted to apply such a word to her - especially not in the pronunciation given to it by the French tongue - in the presence of her son.
"Good morning, boys," said that lady, and went to peruse the remnants of breakfast. "Dear me," she said. "Andrew, please ring for some more toast, and some porridge."
"Yes, Mother," said Roberts, complying at once and sending the maid who answered quickly on her quest. "Sorry, Mother," he said, looking somewhat sheepish.
"It is of no matter," said the lady, as Bracy poured her tea, his hands shaking in trepidation of dropping the pot upon the table. "Thank you, Edmund," she said. "I do hope you will both be able to restrain yourselves a little when you are at Sandhurst. I shouldn't like anyone to think you have been raised in an undisciplined manner, Andrew." She smiled at Bracy to let him know she made no remark on the manner in which his parents found it fit to raise him, and he quailed in embarrassment.
"No, Mother," Roberts said meekly, accepting her gesture of invitation to sit once more, Bracy sinking down by his side.
"What shall you boys do today?" asked Mrs Roberts. "Some study of Latin, no doubt, followed by a little Greek?" She smiled at their twin expressions of worry. "As it is summer, perhaps you think you should leave Latin to the schoolroom – you have, no doubt, an adventure planned?"
"We might go swimming, hey, Bracy?" said Roberts. "It's too hot to do anything else!" He looked at her beseechingly and received a fond smile in return.
"Run along, then," said Mrs Roberts. "I hope you are enjoying your stay with us, Edmund."
"Thank you, I am," said Bracy, finding his tongue quite tied. He was glad for Roberts to steer him from the room as the maid entered with replenishments for the breakfast table.
"Andrew –" said Mrs Roberts, beckoning him back, and quickly releasing him once more.
"I am to take good care of you and not let you drown," whispered Roberts in an evil manner once he was by Bracy's side again. "Mother doesn't like the thought of such an innocent infant as yourself floating about covered in duckweed like Ophelia."
"As if I should!" cried Bracy. "Why, I am no infant –"
"Ah," said Roberts from his vantage point of wisdom and advancing years, full sixteen in total, "that was what I thought when I was fourteen. You are but a babe in arms. I'll have to support your head and hold you up in the water –" Laughing, he fled from before Bracy's sudden attack, easily evading him by running through the library and back into the sitting room. When at last they stopped running Roberts flung an arm about Bracy's neck and cried, "Let's ask Cook for a picnic basket! Swimming's hungry work." At once they ran below stairs, to make of themselves a great nuisance.
Finally, armed with a basket groaning with food, they made their way out of the house, laughing as they recalled to each other triumphs on the cricket field at school, Bracy declaring that the school would mourn the coming of the end of the next year, for it should not see Roberts' like again.
"Nonsense," said Roberts. "You'll be as good –" he smiled a little queerly and looked about, seeming glad to see a sight to which he could call Bracy's attention. "Look," he said, nodding at a group of naked youths disporting themselves in the river, "We are not the only ones who find it too hot this morning to do anything but swim." They stood watching the boys as they leapt into the water, sending up great splashes as they plummeted beneath the surface, only to emerge once more and leap in again. At last one of the boys saw them, and squinted their way for a moment before grinning and loping up the riverbank to stand before them, dripping wet and looking pleased with the progress of his life that had led to this moment.
"I thought it was you!" cried the boy, a youth of Roberts' age in appearance.
"Hello, Jim," said Roberts, grinning as much as the youth before him. "A nice day for a swim!"
"Too hot for much else – you're late back from school this year a'int you?"
"I spent two weeks at my friend's home, and now I'm repaying that hospitality," said Roberts, putting a hand on Bracy's shoulder. He smiled at him, continuing, "This is Br- Mr Bracy."
"Morning, Mr Bracy," said Jim, pleasantly.
"Good morning, Jim," said Bracy, wondering at the little stumble he had heard in Roberts' voice.
"Whyn't you come and have a swim?" Jim said, his bright, blue eyes on Roberts'. "It's so hot, and the river's nice and cold. It's all the lads you know –" He smiled warmly, the invitation extending itself silently to Bracy as well, as he swept a glance over that young gentleman.
"Ah –" said Roberts, his face a little tempted. "Perhaps tomorrow, Jim. Today I must show Mr Bracy around and let him see what a fine spot we all live in!"
"Tomorrow, then," said Jim. "If it's still nice and hot and you have time." He stepped back, smiling a little crookedly. "It's good to see you, Mr Andrew," he said, "Mr Bracy," he added politely, and ran back to where his friends still leapt into the water.
"If you want to swim here, it looks like a good spot," said Bracy, noting how Roberts watched the boys. "Why not join them?"
"We'll go further," said Roberts. "There's a good lake, very deep." He led Bracy on for some time, taking him away from the river and into a wood, cool and dark. All at once the trees opened out, and a small lake, fed by a little stream, glittered in their view. "This is it," said Roberts, and put down the basket. "Try not to drown."
"It's you who should worry," said Bracy. "Are you sure you can swim at all, with your rheumatics?" he went on, his voice an aged, querulous quaver, then danced back as Roberts attempted to shove him into the water. "Let me take my clothes off before you manhandle me so!" cried Bracy. They were both soon naked, Roberts leaping in first in a flash of white limbed abandon, followed at once by Bracy. The water was cold and refreshing, making them both gasp in shock until they were acclimatised to it, and swam back and forth across the lake, racing each other in the hot sun.
"Aren't you afraid of some monster pulling you down?" laughed Roberts, at once seizing Bracy about the waist and trying to force him under the water. It proved a difficult task, Bracy squirming and writhing within his grasp to gain his freedom no matter how firmly Roberts held on or how he intertwined their legs together to stop Bracy from kicking free. At last, exhausted by their efforts and by laughter, they swam lazily back to the shore and lay upon the grass, allowing the sun to dry the sparkling droplets of water from their youthful frames.
"I'm starving!" cried Bracy, and sprang up to run to the picnic basket. He looked back from bending over it, finding Roberts' eyes upon him. "Shall we start with the chicken or the cake?"
"The chicken," said Roberts. "We can give it proper burial afterwards."
Laughing at his older friend's silliness, Bracy brought the basket back with him, sinking down to the ground by Roberts' side, and holding out a leg of chicken to him. He laughed again as Roberts, rather than taking it from him, simply leant closer and took a bite, as if they were sharing an apple. They ate the leg, bite and bite about, and then the rest of the chicken in like manner, devouring then some tongue sandwiches, hard boiled eggs and the aforementioned cake, before slaking their thirst with long draughts from a bottle of ginger beer. Satisfied at last, they lay quiet and sleepy in the sunlight, Bracy rolling over to make himself comfortable against Roberts' side. Roberts put an arm about him, keeping him close.
"It seems so queer!" Roberts said all at once, his voice a little petulant and strange, so that Bracy looked at him with questioning gaze. "I played with Jim and the others so very often when we were children. Before I was sent to school we were barely out of one another's company, if we were free, and then it was the same in the holidays. When I was nine and Mamma – " he paused, and rested his head down upon Bracy's shoulder. "I needed a friend then," he said, "and then when Father married again, I thought my heart would break. How could he replace Mamma so easily? Jim and I ran away, to go to sea, as we thought. We were found the next day, still on the estate, and Jim's father thrashed us both for making people worry so. I remember him apologising to Father for it – Father said, 'Not at all, man, carry on. I'll take over when you're tired'." He laughed ruefully. "Neither of us could sit easily for a week. But there came a time it seemed that things weren't so easy, that both of us were talking about things the other couldn't understand - and now he calls me 'Mr Andrew', and I don't quite know how to make things as they were."
"You haven't fallen out with him, have you?" asked Bracy, unsure as to what to say.
"No," said Roberts, "it's just –" He made a sound of discontent. "It's how things are, I suppose."
"You should like things to be as they once were, is that it?"
"To be a little boy again, and have the freedom to run about with the children of the estate workers?" said Roberts, "it would be nice – and not to have one's Housemaster call one in to say there was sad news about one's Mamma," he added in an undertone. He ruffled Bracy's hair as his friend, seeing the shadow of unhappiness in his face, held him tight and pressed his lips to his temple. "One must grow up, that is all," said Roberts. "I have been lucky – Mother is not the evil step mother found in fairy tales, and if I have grown distant from some old friends, I have made new ones that I cannot be robbed of by the mere customs of the world." He shaded his eyes from the sun with one hand. "It is just how things are," he repeated. "It cannot be changed."
"If you cry," said Bracy impishly, "I shall have to tickle you unmercilessly." He matched his actions to his words, stealing a march, as it were, upon the body of his friend.
"Ah!" ejaculated Roberts. "You fiend!" So saying, he fought back, tickling Bracy and wrestling with him till the younger lad was pinned beneath his heavier frame for Roberts to do as he would. Bracy shrieked with outraged laughter as Roberts gained swift revenge. At last, when they could neither struggle nor laugh more, they staggered back to the lake's waters and splashed each other with vigour till they had energy to swim once again. Looking upon his younger friend swimming by his side, and thinking of the great and honourable careers that awaited them both, Roberts found all traces of his odd melancholy quite washed away and he resolved that the summer should be one that contained only enjoyment for himself and those whom he loved, and that his final year of school should be the best of all. So thinking, he lost himself in the pleasure of the moment, the hot sunlight upon his back, the cold and sparkling water about him, a true friend by his side and a mother at home, who loved him as much as if he were really her own.