THEY sat together at the river’s edge, lazily watching the boats go by. Robert’s feet, stretched out in front of him, were somehow damp, although the sun had been blazing all morning and dappled them now through the leaves, casting loose, blotted shadows that darkened their clothes like stains. Harry had taken off his shoes, setting them aside and drawing up his knees to dabble his toes in the grass. His hair was in his eyes, paled to its summer gold, and his sleeves were rolled up past the elbow. He looked positively blissful. It was all most undignified behavior for a Fellow of Magdalen College, Robert thought, let alone for a Fellow who had also been a captain in the Grenadier Guards, once; two years and a lifetime ago. On days like this one, the War seemed a world away.
It was late June, the end of Trinity Term. In the summer of 1916, on a day like this, Robert had stood waist-deep in mud, waiting endlessly for an order that never came while the wet earth slowly baked around him. “Like a bloody toad in the hole,” one of his men had commented, and it was quite true. Like a lot of little sausages in a very large Yorkshire pudding: when the order finally came to move, they’d practically had to be shoehorned out. And now here he was, contented in Oxford, forgetting. With Harry, who was a master of that particular art, among others.
A punt hove into view, turning carefully, carefully with the bend in the river, describing an almost perfect semicircle before slipping one final degree too far and careering into the bank. Harry laughed softly. “I thought the kid would do it, there. Oh well.” He eyed the unfortunate undergraduate sympathetically as he attempted to disentangle his craft from the low-hanging branches of a tree into which it had merrily thrust itself. “This is the true test of skill.”
Robert squinted at the boy, now poking the riverbed with his punting pole to apparently no effect, but with an ever-increasing show of urgency. The punt was quivering a little, but otherwise remained quite still. The boy was getting upset. It was all very Freudian. “If this is the test, I think he’s failed,” he remarked. Harry grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
“Oh, he’s most definitely failed,” he agreed. “Never mind. More fun for us.”
The boy was now climbing out of the boat. Robert sat up with renewed interest at this new development. Harry sighed. “Spoil sport. He’s going to haul it along by its chain to wherever the hell he got it from, I presume—yes—you see?” He indicated: the boy had, indeed, retrieved the mooring chain with some difficulty, and had set off down the towpath, tugging the punt behind him like a disobedient puppy. Robert shrugged.
“I expect I should have done the same thing,” he confessed with equanimity.
“Oh pfft!” Harry scrambled to his feet and sought around for his shoes. Robert blinked at him in alarm.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I am going,” Harry said, with all the dignity a man can muster while hopping about in his shirtsleeves with one shoe off and the other half fastened, “to get us a punt and show you how it’s done.”
Robert blinked at him for a moment in dull incomprehension. Then: “If you think for one moment that I’m going to let you, of all people, steer me up the river in a flat-bottomed pan propelled with a spatula—”
“I do, and you will,” Harry snapped curtly. “Now get up and stop being so infantile.”
“Infantile!” Robert flailed an arm vaguely. “You’re the one who… who—”
Harry caught the flailing wrist and tugged it unceremoniously upward. “Who gives the orders: quite right. Now, up.”
Robert sighed heavily and got to his feet. There was no arguing with Harry when this particular mood took him, as Robert knew as well as anybody. But, oh God…. “Aren’t you too little to handle one of those things?” he protested lamely, as they moved off toward Magdalen Bridge and its punts. Harry drew himself up.
“I have been handling those things,” he announced grandly, “since I was twelve years old, I’ll have you know. It’s skill, not size, that really matters—not that great big lumbering types like you would understand that.”
Mutely, Robert conceded the point. Harry was, after all, surprisingly strong for a man of his diminutive size, with a will of iron, even—to Robert’s irritation—where the concern was minor. Harry, to put it bluntly, had to have his own way. In the general scheme of things, so did Robert, and yet, for some reason, Harry’s way always triumphed where the two of them were concerned. It was just possible, Robert reasoned, that he had at last encountered somebody more stubborn than himself. He liked Harry, though, despite this, which he would never have expected. “Like,” in truth, was far too weak a word: he idolized him, worshipped him, almost, as a disciple reveres his teacher, although the age difference between them was negligible. Robert might protest about little things Harry did, but should anyone else dare to venture a complaint, Robert flared up like a loyal guard dog, obedient to his master because of love, not fear. Everything Harry said was right; everything Harry maintained was true. Harry was brilliant; Harry was unrivaled; Harry was godlike. Harry was, Robert had recently realized to his own surprise, his hero. And Robert had never been much for heroes.
This fact did not, nevertheless, make Robert feel any easier about clambering into the punt on his hero’s instruction; Robert was fully aware that Harry was far from infallible. The punt settled dangerously in the water and began to swing creakily away from the bank like an old door, loose on its hinges. He sat up sharply. “Morrison—”