'Oh, I go in for the extraordinary girl under all circumstances.'
'It is true that if you are very well brought up you are not ordinary,' said Mrs. Nettlepoint, smelling her strong salts. 'You are a lady, at any rate. C'est toujours ca.'
'And Miss Mavis isn't one—is that what you mean?'
'Well—you have seen her mother.'
'Yes, but I think your contention would be that among such people the mother doesn't count.'
'Precisely; and that's bad.'
'I see what you mean. But isn't it rather hard? If your mother doesn't know anything it is better you should be independent of her, and yet if you are that constitutes a bad note.' I added that Mrs. Mavis had appeared to count sufficiently two nights before. She had said and done everything she wanted, while the girl sat silent and respectful. Grace's attitude (so far as her mother was concerned) had been eminently decent.
'Yes, but she couldn't bear it,' said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
'Ah, if you know it I may confess that she has told me as much.'
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. 'Told you? There's one of the things they do!'
'Well, it was only a word. Won't you let me know whether you think she's a flirt?'
'Find out for yourself, since you pretend to study folks.'
'Oh, your judgment would probably not at all determine mine. It's in regard to yourself that I ask it.'
'In regard to myself?'
'To see the length of maternal immorality.'
Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to repeat my words. 'Maternal immorality?'
'You desire your son to have every possible distraction on his voyage, and if you can make up your mind in the sense I refer to that will make it all right. He will have no responsibility.'
'Heavens, how you analyse! I haven't in the least your passion for making up my mind.'
'Then if you chance it you'll be more immoral still.'
'Your reasoning is strange,' said the poor lady; 'when it was you who tried to put it into my head yesterday that she had asked him to come.'
'Yes, but in good faith.'
'How do you mean in good faith?'
'Why, as girls of that sort do. Their allowance and measure in such matters is much larger than that of young ladies who have been, as you say, very well brought up; and yet I am not sure that on the whole I don't think them the more innocent. Miss Mavis is engaged, and she's to be married next week, but it's an old, old story, and there's no more romance in it than if she were going to be photographed. So her usual life goes on, and her usual life consists (and that of ces demoiselles in general) in having plenty of gentlemen's society. Having it I mean without having any harm from it.'
'Well, if there is no harm from it what are you talking about and why am I immoral?'
I hesitated, laughing. 'I retract—you are sane and clear. I am sure she thinks there won't be any harm,' I added. 'That's the great point.'
'The great point?'
'I mean, to be settled.'
'Mercy, we are not trying them! How can we settle it?'
'I mean of course in our minds. There will be nothing more interesting for the next ten days for our minds to exercise themselves upon.'
'They will get very tired of it,' said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
'No, no, because the interest will increase and the plot will thicken. It can't help it.' She looked at me as if she thought me slightly Mephistophelean, and I went on—'So she told you everything in her life was dreary?'
'Not everything but most things. And she didn't tell me so much as I guessed it. She'll tell me more the next time. She will behave properly now about coming in to see me; I told her she ought to.'
'I am glad of that,' I said. 'Keep her with you as much as possible.'
'I don't follow you much,' Mrs. Nettlepoint replied, 'but so far as I do I don't think your remarks are in very good taste.'
'I'm too excited, I lose my head, cold-blooded as you think me. Doesn't she like Mr. Porterfield?'
'Yes, that's the worst of it.'
'The worst of it?'
'He's so good—there's no fault to be found with him. Otherwise she would have thrown it all up. It has dragged on since she was eighteen: she became engaged to him before he went abroad to study. It was one of those childish muddles which parents in America might prevent so much more than they do. The thing is to insist on one's daughter's waiting, on the engagement's being long; and then after you have got that started to take it on every occasion as little seriously as possible—to make it die out. You can easily tire it out. However, Mr. Porterfield has taken it seriously for some years. He has done his part to keep it alive. She says he adores her.'
'His part? Surely his part would have been to marry her by this time.'
'He has absolutely no money.'
'He ought to have got some, in seven years.'
'So I think she thinks. There are some sorts of poverty that are contemptible. But he has a little more now. That's why he won't wait any longer. His mother has come out, she has something—a little—and she is able to help him. She will live with them and bear some of the expenses, and after her death the son will have what there is.'
'How old is she?' I asked, cynically.
'I haven't the least idea. But it doesn't sound very inspiring. He has not been to America since he first went out.'
'That's an odd way of adoring her.'
'I made that objection mentally, but I didn't express it to her. She met it indeed a little by telling me that he had had other chances to marry.'
'That surprises me,' I remarked. 'And did she say that she had had?'
'No, and that's one of the things I thought nice in her; for she must have had. She didn't try to make out that he had spoiled her life. She has three other sisters and there is very little money at home. She has tried to make money; she has written little things and painted little things, but her talent is apparently not in that direction. Her father has had a long illness and has lost his place—he was in receipt of a salary in connection with some waterworks—and one of her sisters has lately become a widow, with children and without means. And so as in fact she never has married any one else, whatever opportunities she may have encountered, she appears to have just made up her mind to go out to Mr. Porterfield as the least of her evils. But it isn't very amusing.'
'That only makes it the more honourable. She will go through with it, whatever it costs, rather than disappoint him after he has waited so long. It is true,' I continued, 'that when a woman acts from a sense of honour——'
'Well, when she does?' said Mrs. Nettlepoint, for I hesitated perceptibly.
'It is so extravagant a course that some one has to pay for it.'
'You are very impertinent. We all have to pay for each other, all the while; and for each other's virtues as well as vices.'
'That's precisely why I shall be sorry for Mr. Porterfield when she steps off the ship with her little bill. I mean with her teeth clenched.'
'Her teeth are not in the least clenched. She is in perfect good-humour.'
'Well, we must try and keep her so,' I said. 'You must take care that Jasper neglects nothing.'
I know not what reflection this innocent pleasantry of mine provoked on the good lady's part; the upshot of them at all events was to make her say—'Well, I never asked her to come; I'm very glad of that. It is all their own doing.'
'Their own—you mean Jasper's and hers?'
'No indeed. I mean her mother's and Mrs. Allen's; the girl's too of course. They put themselves upon us.'
'Oh yes, I can testify to that. Therefore I'm glad too. We should have missed it, I think.'
'How seriously you take it!' Mrs. Nettlepoint exclaimed.
'Ah, wait a few days!' I replied, getting up to leave her.
The Patagonia was slow, but she was spacious and comfortable, and there was a kind of motherly decency in her long, nursing rock and her rustling, old-fashioned gait. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. We were not numerous enough to squeeze each other and yet we were not too few to entertain—with that familiarity and relief which figures and objects acquire on the great bare field of the ocean, beneath the great bright glass of the sky. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I had never liked it at all; but now I had a revelation of how, in a midsummer mood, it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet—save for the great regular swell of its heart-beats, the pulse of its life, and there grew to be something so agreeable in the sense of floating there in infinite isolation and leisure that it was a positive satisfaction the Patagonia was not a racer. One had never thought of the sea as the great place of safety, but now it came over one that there is no place so safe from the land. When it does not give you trouble it takes it away—takes away letters and telegrams and newspapers and visits and duties and efforts, all the complications, all the superfluities and superstitions that we have stuffed into our terrene life. The simple absence of the post, when the particular conditions enable you to enjoy the great fact by which it is produced, becomes in itself a kind of bliss, and the clean stage of the deck shows you a play that amuses, the personal drama of the voyage, the movement and interaction, in the strong sea-light, of figures that end by representing something—something moreover of which the interest is never, even in its keenness, too great to suffer you to go to sleep. I, at any rate, dozed a great deal, lying on my rug with a French novel, and when I opened my eyes I generally saw Jasper Nettlepoint passing with his mother's protegee on his arm. Somehow at these moments, between sleeping and waking, I had an inconsequent sense that they were a part of the French novel. Perhaps this was because I had fallen into the trick, at the start, of regarding Grace Mavis almost as a married woman, which, as every one knows, is the necessary status of the heroine of such a work. Every revolution of our engine at any rate would contribute to the effect of making her one.
In the saloon, at meals, my neighbour on the right was a certain little Mrs. Peck, a very short and very round person whose head was enveloped in a 'cloud' (a cloud of dirty white wool) and who promptly let me know that she was going to Europe for the education of her children. I had already perceived (an hour after we left the dock) that some energetic step was required in their interest, but as we were not in Europe yet the business could not be said to have begun. The four little Pecks, in the enjoyment of untrammelled leisure, swarmed about the ship as if they had been pirates boarding her, and their mother was as powerless to check their license as if she had been gagged and stowed away in the hold. They were especially to be trusted to run between the legs of the stewards when these attendants arrived with bowls of soup for the languid ladies. Their mother was too busy recounting to her fellow-passengers how many years Miss Mavis had been engaged. In the blank of a marine existence things that are nobody's business very soon become everybody's, and this was just one of those facts that are propagated with a mysterious and ridiculous rapidity. The whisper that carries them is very small, in the great scale of things, of air and space and progress, but it is also very safe, for there is no compression, no sounding-board, to make speakers responsible. And then repetition at sea is somehow not repetition; monotony is in the air, the mind is flat and everything recurs—the bells, the meals, the stewards' faces, the romp of children, the walk, the clothes, the very shoes and buttons of passengers taking their exercise. These things grow at last so insipid that, in comparison, revelations as to the personal history of one's companions have a taste, even when one cares little about the people.
Jasper Nettlepoint sat on my left hand when he was not upstairs seeing that Miss Mavis had her repast comfortably on deck. His mother's place would have been next mine had she shown herself, and then that of the young lady under her care. The two ladies, in other words, would have been between us, Jasper marking the limit of the party on that side. Miss Mavis was present at luncheon the first day, but dinner passed without her coming in, and when it was half over Jasper remarked that he would go up and look after her.
'Isn't that young lady coming—the one who was here to lunch?' Mrs. Peck asked of me as he left the saloon.
'Apparently not. My friend tells me she doesn't like the saloon.'
'You don't mean to say she's sick, do you?'
'Oh no, not in this weather. But she likes to be above.'
'And is that gentleman gone up to her?'
'Yes, she's under his mother's care.'
'And is his mother up there, too?' asked Mrs. Peck, whose processes were homely and direct.
'No, she remains in her cabin. People have different tastes. Perhaps that's one reason why Miss Mavis doesn't come to table,' I added—'her chaperon not being able to accompany her.'
'Mrs. Nettlepoint—the lady under whose protection she is.'
'Protection?' Mrs. Peck stared at me a moment, moving some valued morsel in her mouth; then she exclaimed, familiarly, 'Pshaw!' I was struck with this and I was on the point of asking her what she meant by it when she continued: 'Are we not going to see Mrs. Nettlepoint?'
'I am afraid not. She vows that she won't stir from her sofa.'
'Pshaw!' said Mrs. Peck again. 'That's quite a disappointment.'
'Do you know her then?'
'No, but I know all about her.' Then my companion added—'You don't meant to say she's any relation?'
'Do you mean to me?'
'No, to Grace Mavis.'
'None at all. They are very new friends, as I happen to know. Then you are acquainted with our young lady?' I had not noticed that any recognition passed between them at luncheon.
'Is she yours too?' asked Mrs. Peck, smiling at me.
'Ah, when people are in the same boat—literally—they belong a little to each other.'
'That's so,' said Mrs. Peck. 'I don't know Miss Mavis but I know all about her—I live opposite to her on Merrimac Avenue. I don't know whether you know that part.'
'Oh yes—it's very beautiful.'
The consequence of this remark was another 'Pshaw!' But Mrs. Peck went on—'When you've lived opposite to people like that for a long time you feel as if you were acquainted. But she didn't take it up to-day; she didn't speak to me. She knows who I am as well as she knows her own mother.'
'You had better speak to her first—she's shy,' I remarked.
'Shy? Why she's nearly thirty years old. I suppose you know where she's going.'
'Oh yes—we all take an interest in that.'
'That young man, I suppose, particularly.'
'That young man?'
'The handsome one, who sits there. Didn't you tell me he is Mrs. Nettlepoint's son?'
'Oh yes; he acts as her deputy. No doubt he does all he can to carry out her function.'
Mrs. Peck was silent a moment. I had spoken jocosely, but she received my pleasantry with a serious face. 'Well, she might let him eat his dinner in peace!' she presently exclaimed.
'Oh, he'll come back!' I said, glancing at his place. The repast continued and when it was finished I screwed my chair round to leave the table. Mrs. Peck performed the same movement and we quitted the saloon together. Outside of it was a kind of vestibule, with several seats, from which you could descend to the lower cabins or mount to the promenade-deck. Mrs. Peck appeared to hesitate as to her course and then solved the problem by going neither way. She dropped upon one of the benches and looked up at me.
'I thought you said he would come back.'
'Young Nettlepoint? I see he didn't. Miss Mavis then has given him half of her dinner.'
'It's very kind of her! She has been engaged for ages.'
'Yes, but that will soon be over.'
'So I suppose—as quick as we land. Every one knows it on Merrimac Avenue. Every one there takes a great interest in it.'
'Ah, of course, a girl like that: she has many friends.'
'I mean even people who don't know her.'
'I see,' I went on: 'she is so handsome that she attracts attention, people enter into her affairs.'
'She used to be pretty, but I can't say I think she's anything remarkable to-day. Anyhow, if she attracts attention she ought to be all the more careful what she does. You had better tell her that.'
'Oh, it's none of my business!' I replied, leaving Mrs. Peck and going above. The exclamation, I confess, was not perfectly in accordance with my feeling, or rather my feeling was not perfectly in harmony with the exclamation. The very first thing I did on reaching the deck was to notice that Miss Mavis was pacing it on Jasper Nettlepoint's arm and that whatever beauty she might have lost, according to Mrs. Peck's insinuation, she still kept enough to make one's eyes follow her. She had put on a sort of crimson hood, which was very becoming to her and which she wore for the rest of the voyage. She walked very well, with long steps, and I remember that at this moment the ocean had a gentle evening swell which made the great ship dip slowly, rhythmically, giving a movement that was graceful to graceful pedestrians and a more awkward one to the awkward. It was the loveliest hour of a fine day, the clear early evening, with the glow of the sunset in the air and a purple colour in the sea. I always thought that the waters ploughed by the Homeric heroes must have looked like that. I perceived on that particular occasion moreover that Grace Mavis would for the rest of the voyage be the most visible thing on the ship; the figure that would count most in the composition of groups. She couldn't help it, poor girl; nature had made her conspicuous—important, as the painters say. She paid for it by the exposure it brought with it—the danger that people would, as I had said to Mrs. Peck, enter into her affairs.
Jasper Nettlepoint went down at certain times to see his mother, and I watched for one of these occasions (on the third day out) and took advantage of it to go and sit by Miss Mavis. She wore a blue veil drawn tightly over her face, so that if the smile with which she greeted me was dim I could account for it partly by that.
'Well, we are getting on—we are getting on,' I said, cheerfully, looking at the friendly, twinkling sea.
'Are we going very fast?'
'Not fast, but steadily. Ohne Hast, ohne Rast—do you know German?'
'Well, I've studied it—some.'
'It will be useful to you over there when you travel.'
'Well yes, if we do. But I don't suppose we shall much. Mr. Nettlepoint says we ought,' my interlocutress added in a moment.
'Ah, of course he thinks so. He has been all over the world.'
'Yes, he has described some of the places. That's what I should like. I didn't know I should like it so much.'
'Like what so much?'
'Going on this way. I could go on for ever, for ever and ever.'
'Ah, you know it's not always like this,' I rejoined.
'Well, it's better than Boston.'
'It isn't so good as Paris,' I said, smiling.
'Oh, I know all about Paris. There is no freshness in that. I feel as if I had been there.'
'You mean you have heard so much about it?'
'Oh yes, nothing else for ten years.'
I had come to talk with Miss Mavis because she was attractive, but I had been rather conscious of the absence of a good topic, not feeling at liberty to revert to Mr. Porterfield. She had not encouraged me, when I spoke to her as we were leaving Boston, to go on with the history of my acquaintance with this gentleman; and yet now, unexpectedly, she appeared to imply (it was doubtless one of the disparities mentioned by Mrs. Nettlepoint) that he might be glanced at without indelicacy.
'I see, you mean by letters,' I remarked.
'I shan't live in a good part. I know enough to know that,' she went on.
'Dear young lady, there are no bad parts,' I answered, reassuringly.
'Why, Mr. Nettlepoint says it's horrid.'
'Up there in the Batignolles. It's worse than Merrimac Avenue.'
'Worse—in what way?'
'Why, even less where the nice people live.'
'He oughtn't to say that,' I returned. 'Don't you call Mr. Porterfield a nice person?' I ventured to subjoin.
'Oh, it doesn't make any difference.' She rested her eyes on me a moment through her veil, the texture of which gave them a suffused prettiness. 'Do you know him very well?' she asked.
'No, Mr. Nettlepoint.'
'Ah, very little. He's a good deal younger than I.'
She was silent a moment; after which she said: 'He's younger than me, too.' I know not what drollery there was in this but it was unexpected and it made me laugh. Neither do I know whether Miss Mavis took offence at my laughter, though I remember thinking at the moment with compunction that it had brought a certain colour to her cheek. At all events she got up, gathering her shawl and her books into her arm. 'I'm going down—I'm tired.'
'Tired of me, I'm afraid.'
'No, not yet.'
'I'm like you,' I pursued. 'I should like it to go on and on.'
She had begun to walk along the deck to the companion-way and I went with her. 'Oh, no, I shouldn't, after all!'
I had taken her shawl from her to carry it, but at the top of the steps that led down to the cabins I had to give it back. 'Your mother would be glad if she could know,' I observed as we parted.
'If she could know?'
'How well you are getting on. And that good Mrs. Allen.'
'Oh, mother, mother! She made me come, she pushed me off.' And almost as if not to say more she went quickly below.
I paid Mrs. Nettlepoint a morning visit after luncheon and another in the evening, before she 'turned in.' That same day, in the evening, she said to me suddenly, 'Do you know what I have done? I have asked Jasper.'
'Asked him what?'
'Why, if she asked him, you know.'
'I don't understand.'
'You do perfectly. If that girl really asked him—on the balcony—to sail with us.'
'My dear friend, do you suppose that if she did he would tell you?'
'That's just what he says. But he says she didn't.'
'And do you consider the statement valuable?' I asked, laughing out. 'You had better ask Miss Gracie herself.'
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. 'I couldn't do that.'
'Incomparable friend, I am only joking. What does it signify now?'
'I thought you thought everything signified. You were so full of signification!'
'Yes, but we are farther out now, and somehow in mid-ocean everything becomes absolute.'
'What else can he do with decency?' Mrs. Nettlepoint went on. 'If, as my son, he were never to speak to her it would be very rude and you would think that stranger still. Then you would do what he does, and where would be the difference?'
'How do you know what he does? I haven't mentioned him for twenty-four hours.'
'Why, she told me herself: she came in this afternoon.'
'What an odd thing to tell you!' I exclaimed.
'Not as she says it. She says he's full of attention, perfectly devoted—looks after her all the while. She seems to want me to know it, so that I may commend him for it.'
'That's charming; it shows her good conscience.'
'Yes, or her great cleverness.'
Something in the tone in which Mrs. Nettlepoint said this caused me to exclaim in real surprise, 'Why, what do you suppose she has in her mind?'
'To get hold of him, to make him go so far that he can't retreat, to marry him, perhaps.'
'To marry him? And what will she do with Mr. Porterfield?'
'She'll ask me just to explain to him—or perhaps you.'
'Yes, as an old friend!' I replied, laughing. But I asked more seriously, 'Do you see Jasper caught like that?'
'Well, he's only a boy—he's younger at least than she.'
'Precisely; she regards him as a child.'
'As a child?'
'She remarked to me herself to-day that he is so much younger.'
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. 'Does she talk of it with you? That shows she has a plan, that she has thought it over!'
I have sufficiently betrayed that I deemed Grace Mavis a singular girl, but I was far from judging her capable of laying a trap for our young companion. Moreover my reading of Jasper was not in the least that he was catchable—could be made to do a thing if he didn't want to do it. Of course it was not impossible that he might be inclined, that he might take it (or already have taken it) into his head to marry Miss Mavis; but to believe this I should require still more proof than his always being with her. He wanted at most to marry her for the voyage. 'If you have questioned him perhaps you have tried to make him feel responsible,' I said to his mother.
'A little, but it's very difficult. Interference makes him perverse. One has to go gently. Besides, it's too absurd—think of her age. If she can't take care of herself!' cried Mrs. Nettlepoint.
'Yes, let us keep thinking of her age, though it's not so prodigious. And if things get very bad you have one resource left,' I added.
'What is that?'
'You can go upstairs.'
'Ah, never, never! If it takes that to save her she must be lost. Besides, what good would it do? If I were to go up she could come down here.'
'Yes, but you could keep Jasper with you.'
'Could I?' Mrs. Nettlepoint demanded, in the manner of a woman who knew her son.
In the saloon the next day, after dinner, over the red cloth of the tables, beneath the swinging lamps and the racks of tumblers, decanters and wine-glasses, we sat down to whist, Mrs. Peck, among others, taking a hand in the game. She played very badly and talked too much, and when the rubber was over assuaged her discomfiture (though not mine—we had been partners) with a Welsh rabbit and a tumbler of something hot. We had done with the cards, but while she waited for this refreshment she sat with her elbows on the table shuffling a pack.
'She hasn't spoken to me yet—she won't do it,' she remarked in a moment.
'Is it possible there is any one on the ship who hasn't spoken to you?'
'Not that girl—she knows too well!' Mrs. Peck looked round our little circle with a smile of intelligence—she had familiar, communicative eyes. Several of our company had assembled, according to the wont, the last thing in the evening, of those who are cheerful at sea, for the consumption of grilled sardines and devilled bones.
'What then does she know?'
'Oh, she knows that I know.'
'Well, we know what Mrs. Peck knows,' one of the ladies of the group observed to me, with an air of privilege.
'Well, you wouldn't know if I hadn't told you—from the way she acts,' said Mrs. Peck, with a small laugh.
'She is going out to a gentleman who lives over there—he's waiting there to marry her,' the other lady went on, in the tone of authentic information. I remember that her name was Mrs. Gotch and that her mouth looked always as if she were whistling.
'Oh, he knows—I've told him,' said Mrs. Peck.
'Well, I presume every one knows,' Mrs. Gotch reflected.
'Dear madam, is it every one's business?' I asked.
'Why, don't you think it's a peculiar way to act?' Mrs. Gotch was evidently surprised at my little protest.
'Why, it's right there—straight in front of you, like a play at the theatre—as if you had paid to see it,' said Mrs. Peck. 'If you don't call it public——!'
'Aren't you mixing things up? What do you call public?'
'Why, the way they go on. They are up there now.'
'They cuddle up there half the night,' said Mrs. Gotch. 'I don't know when they come down. Any hour you like—when all the lights are out they are up there still.'
'Oh, you can't tire them out. They don't want relief—like the watch!' laughed one of the gentlemen.
'Well, if they enjoy each other's society what's the harm?' another asked. 'They'd do just the same on land.'
'They wouldn't do it on the public streets, I suppose,' said Mrs. Peck. 'And they wouldn't do it if Mr. Porterfield was round!'
'Isn't that just where your confusion comes in?' I inquired. 'It's public enough that Miss Mavis and Mr. Nettlepoint are always together, but it isn't in the least public that she is going to be married.'
'Why, how can you say—when the very sailors know it! The captain knows it and all the officers know it; they see them there—especially at night, when they're sailing the ship.'
'I thought there was some rule——' said Mrs. Gotch.
'Well, there is—that you've got to behave yourself,' Mrs. Peck rejoined. 'So the captain told me—he said they have some rule. He said they have to have, when people are too demonstrative.'
'When they attract so much attention.'
'Ah, it's we who attract the attention—by talking about what doesn't concern us and about what we really don't know,' I ventured to declare.
'She said the captain said he would tell on her as soon as we arrive,' Mrs. Gotch interposed.
'She said——?' I repeated, bewildered.
'Well, he did say so, that he would think it his duty to inform Mr. Porterfield, when he comes on to meet her—if they keep it up in the same way,' said Mrs. Peck.
'Oh, they'll keep it up, don't you fear!' one of the gentlemen exclaimed.
'Dear madam, the captain is laughing at you.'
'No, he ain't—he's right down scandalised. He says he regards us all as a real family and wants the family to be properly behaved.' I could see Mrs. Peck was irritated by my controversial tone: she challenged me with considerable spirit. 'How can you say I don't know it when all the street knows it and has known it for years—for years and years?' She spoke as if the girl had been engaged at least for twenty. 'What is she going out for, if not to marry him?'
'Perhaps she is going to see how he looks,' suggested one of the gentlemen.
'He'd look queer—if he knew.'
'Well, I guess he'll know,' said Mrs. Gotch.
'She'd tell him herself—she wouldn't be afraid,' the gentleman went on.
'Well, she might as well kill him. He'll jump overboard.'
'Jump overboard?' cried Mrs. Gotch, as if she hoped then that Mr. Porterfield would be told.
'He has just been waiting for this—for years,' said Mrs. Peck.
'Do you happen to know him?' I inquired.
Mrs. Peck hesitated a moment. 'No, but I know a lady who does. Are you going up?'
I had risen from my place—I had not ordered supper. 'I'm going to take a turn before going to bed.'
'Well then, you'll see!'
Outside the saloon I hesitated, for Mrs. Peck's admonition made me feel for a moment that if I ascended to the deck I should have entered in a manner into her little conspiracy. But the night was so warm and splendid that I had been intending to smoke a cigar in the air before going below, and I did not see why I should deprive myself of this pleasure in order to seem not to mind Mrs. Peck. I went up and saw a few figures sitting or moving about in the darkness. The ocean looked black and small, as it is apt to do at night, and the long mass of the ship, with its vague dim wings, seemed to take up a great part of it. There were more stars than one saw on land and the heavens struck one more than ever as larger than the earth. Grace Mavis and her companion were not, so far as I perceived at first, among the few passengers who were lingering late, and I was glad, because I hated to hear her talked about in the manner of the gossips I had left at supper. I wished there had been some way to prevent it, but I could think of no way but to recommend her privately to change her habits. That would be a very delicate business, and perhaps it would be better to begin with Jasper, though that would be delicate too. At any rate one might let him know, in a friendly spirit, to how much remark he exposed the young lady—leaving this revelation to work its way upon him. Unfortunately I could not altogether believe that the pair were unconscious of the observation and the opinion of the passengers. They were not a boy and a girl; they had a certain social perspective in their eye. I was not very clear as to the details of that behaviour which had made them (according to the version of my good friends in the saloon) a scandal to the ship, for though I looked at them a good deal I evidently had not looked at them so continuously and so hungrily as Mrs. Peck. Nevertheless the probability was that they knew what was thought of them—what naturally would be—and simply didn't care. That made Miss Mavis out rather cynical and even a little immodest; and yet, somehow, if she had such qualities I did not dislike her for them. I don't know what strange, secret excuses I found for her. I presently indeed encountered a need for them on the spot, for just as I was on the point of going below again, after several restless turns and (within the limit where smoking was allowed) as many puffs at a cigar as I cared for, I became aware that a couple of figures were seated behind one of the lifeboats that rested on the deck. They were so placed as to be visible only to a person going close to the rail and peering a little sidewise. I don't think I peered, but as I stood a moment beside the rail my eye was attracted by a dusky object which protruded beyond the boat and which, as I saw at a second glance, was the tail of a lady's dress. I bent forward an instant, but even then I saw very little more; that scarcely mattered, however, for I took for granted on the spot that the persons concealed in so snug a corner were Jasper Nettlepoint and Mr. Porterfield's intended. Concealed was the word, and I thought it a real pity; there was bad taste in it. I immediately turned away and the next moment I found myself face to face with the captain of the ship. I had already had some conversation with him (he had been so good as to invite me, as he had invited Mrs. Nettlepoint and her son and the young lady travelling with them, and also Mrs. Peck, to sit at his table) and had observed with pleasure that he had the art, not universal on the Atlantic liners, of mingling urbanity with seamanship.
'They don't waste much time—your friends in there,' he said, nodding in the direction in which he had seen me looking.
'Ah well, they haven't much to lose.'
'That's what I mean. I'm told she hasn't.'
I wanted to say something exculpatory but I scarcely knew what note to strike. I could only look vaguely about me at the starry darkness and the sea that seemed to sleep. 'Well, with these splendid nights, this perfection of weather, people are beguiled into late hours.'
'Yes. We want a nice little blow,' the captain said.
'A nice little blow?'
'That would clear the decks!'
The captain was rather dry and he went about his business. He had made me uneasy and instead of going below I walked a few steps more. The other walkers dropped off pair by pair (they were all men) till at last I was alone. Then, after a little, I quitted the field. Jasper and his companion were still behind their lifeboat. Personally I greatly preferred good weather, but as I went down I found myself vaguely wishing, in the interest of I scarcely knew what, unless of decorum, that we might have half a gale.
Miss Mavis turned out, in sea-phrase, early; for the next morning I saw her come up only a little while after I had finished my breakfast, a ceremony over which I contrived not to dawdle. She was alone and Jasper Nettlepoint, by a rare accident, was not on deck to help her. I went to meet her (she was encumbered as usual with her shawl, her sun-umbrella and a book) and laid my hands on her chair, placing it near the stern of the ship, where she liked best to be. But I proposed to her to walk a little before she sat down and she took my arm after I had put her accessories into the chair. The deck was clear at that hour and the morning light was gay; one got a sort of exhilarated impression of fair conditions and an absence of hindrance. I forget what we spoke of first, but it was because I felt these things pleasantly, and not to torment my companion nor to test her, that I could not help exclaiming cheerfully, after a moment, as I have mentioned having done the first day, 'Well, we are getting on, we are getting on!'
'Oh yes, I count every hour.'
'The last days always go quicker,' I said, 'and the last hours——'
'Well, the last hours?' she asked; for I had instinctively checked myself.
'Oh, one is so glad then that it is almost the same as if one had arrived. But we ought to be grateful when the elements have been so kind to us,' I added. 'I hope you will have enjoyed the voyage.'
She hesitated a moment, then she said, 'Yes, much more than I expected.'
'Did you think it would be very bad?'
The tone of these words was strange but I had not much time to reflect upon it, for turning round at that moment I saw Jasper Nettlepoint come towards us. He was separated from us by the expanse of the white deck and I could not help looking at him from head to foot as he drew nearer. I know not what rendered me on this occasion particularly sensitive to the impression, but it seemed to me that I saw him as I had never seen him before—saw him inside and out, in the intense sea-light, in his personal, his moral totality. It was a quick, vivid revelation; if it only lasted a moment it had a simplifying, certifying effect. He was intrinsically a pleasing apparition, with his handsome young face and a certain absence of compromise in his personal arrangements which, more than any one I have ever seen, he managed to exhibit on shipboard. He had none of the appearance of wearing out old clothes that usually prevails there, but dressed straight, as I heard some one say. This gave him a practical, successful air, as of a young man who would come best out of any predicament. I expected to feel my companion's hand loosen itself on my arm, as indication that now she must go to him, and was almost surprised she did not drop me. We stopped as we met and Jasper bade us a friendly good-morning. Of course the remark was not slow to be made that we had another lovely day, which led him to exclaim, in the manner of one to whom criticism came easily, 'Yes, but with this sort of thing consider what one of the others would do!'
'One of the other ships?'
'We should be there now, or at any rate to-morrow.'
'Well then, I'm glad it isn't one of the others,' I said, smiling at the young lady on my arm. My remark offered her a chance to say something appreciative and gave him one even more; but neither Jasper nor Grace Mavis took advantage of the opportunity. What they did do, I perceived, was to look at each other for an instant; after which Miss Mavis turned her eyes silently to the sea. She made no movement and uttered no word, contriving to give me the sense that she had all at once become perfectly passive, that she somehow declined responsibility. We remained standing there with Jasper in front of us, and if the touch of her arm did not suggest that I should give her up, neither did it intimate that we had better pass on. I had no idea of giving her up, albeit one of the things that I seemed to discover just then in Jasper's physiognomy was an imperturbable implication that she was his property. His eye met mine for a moment, and it was exactly as if he had said to me, 'I know what you think, but I don't care a rap.' What I really thought was that he was selfish beyond the limits: that was the substance of my little revelation. Youth is almost always selfish, just as it is almost always conceited, and, after all, when it is combined with health and good parts, good looks and good spirits, it has a right to be, and I easily forgive it if it be really youth. Still it is a question of degree, and what stuck out of Jasper Nettlepoint (if one felt that sort of thing) was that his egotism had a hardness, his love of his own way an avidity. These elements were jaunty and prosperous, they were accustomed to triumph. He was fond, very fond, of women; they were necessary to him and that was in his type; but he was not in the least in love with Grace Mavis. Among the reflections I quickly made this was the one that was most to the point. There was a degree of awkwardness, after a minute, in the way we were planted there, though the apprehension of it was doubtless not in the least with him.
'How is your mother this morning?' I asked.
'You had better go down and see.'
'Not till Miss Mavis is tired of me.'
She said nothing to this and I made her walk again. For some minutes she remained silent; then, rather unexpectedly, she began: 'I've seen you talking to that lady who sits at our table—the one who has so many children.'
'Mrs. Peck? Oh yes, I have talked with her.'
'Do you know her very well?'
'Only as one knows people at sea. An acquaintance makes itself. It doesn't mean very much.'
'She doesn't speak to me—she might if she wanted.'
'That's just what she says of you—that you might speak to her.'
'Oh, if she's waiting for that——!' said my companion, with a laugh. Then she added—'She lives in our street, nearly opposite.'
'Precisely. That's the reason why she thinks you might speak; she has seen you so often and seems to know so much about you.'
'What does she know about me?'
'Ah, you must ask her—I can't tell you!'
'I don't care what she knows,' said my young lady. After a moment she went on—'She must have seen that I'm not very sociable.' And then—'What are you laughing at?'
My laughter was for an instant irrepressible—there was something so droll in the way she had said that.
'Well, you are not sociable and yet you are. Mrs. Peck is, at any rate, and thought that ought to make it easy for you to enter into conversation with her.'
'Oh, I don't care for her conversation—I know what it amounts to.' I made no rejoinder—I scarcely knew what rejoinder to make—and the girl went on, 'I know what she thinks and I know what she says.' Still I was silent, but the next moment I saw that my delicacy had been wasted, for Miss Mavis asked, 'Does she make out that she knows Mr. Porterfield?'
'No, she only says that she knows a lady who knows him.'
'Yes, I know—Mrs. Jeremie. Mrs. Jeremie's an idiot!' I was not in a position to controvert this, and presently my young lady said she would sit down. I left her in her chair—I saw that she preferred it—and wandered to a distance. A few minutes later I met Jasper again, and he stopped of his own accord and said to me—
'We shall be in about six in the evening, on the eleventh day—they promise it.'
'If nothing happens, of course.'
'Well, what's going to happen?'
'That's just what I'm wondering!' And I turned away and went below with the foolish but innocent satisfaction of thinking that I had mystified him.
'I don't know what to do, and you must help me,' Mrs. Nettlepoint said to me that evening, as soon as I went in to see her.
'I'll do what I can—but what's the matter?'
'She has been crying here and going on—she has quite upset me.'
'Crying? She doesn't look like that.'
'Exactly, and that's what startled me. She came in to see me this afternoon, as she has done before, and we talked about the weather and the run of the ship and the manners of the stewardess and little commonplaces like that, and then suddenly, in the midst of it, as she sat there, a propos of nothing, she burst into tears. I asked her what ailed her and tried to comfort her, but she didn't explain; she only said it was nothing, the effect of the sea, of leaving home. I asked her if it had anything to do with her prospects, with her marriage; whether she found as that drew near that her heart was not in it; I told her that she mustn't be nervous, that I could enter into that—in short I said what I could. All that she replied was that she was nervous, very nervous, but that it was already over; and then she jumped up and kissed me and went away. Does she look as if she had been crying?' Mrs. Nettlepoint asked.
'How can I tell, when she never quits that horrid veil? It's as if she were ashamed to show her face.'
'She's keeping it for Liverpool. But I don't like such incidents,' said Mrs. Nettlepoint. 'I shall go upstairs.'
'And is that where you want me to help you?'
'Oh, your arm and that sort of thing, yes. But something more. I feel as if something were going to happen.'
'That's exactly what I said to Jasper this morning.'
'And what did he say?'
'He only looked innocent, as if he thought I meant a fog or a storm.'
'Heaven forbid—it isn't that! I shall never be good-natured again,' Mrs. Nettlepoint went on; 'never have a girl put upon me that way. You always pay for it, there are always tiresome complications. What I am afraid of is after we get there. She'll throw up her engagement; there will be dreadful scenes; I shall be mixed up with them and have to look after her and keep her with me. I shall have to stay there with her till she can be sent back, or even take her up to London. Voyez-vous ca?'
I listened respectfully to this and then I said: 'You are afraid of your son.'
'Afraid of him?'
'There are things you might say to him—and with your manner; because you have one when you choose.'
'Very likely, but what is my manner to his? Besides, I have said everything to him. That is I have said the great thing, that he is making her immensely talked about.'
'And of course in answer to that he has asked you how you know, and you have told him I have told you.'
'I had to; and he says it's none of your business.'
'I wish he would say that to my face.'
'He'll do so perfectly, if you give him a chance. That's where you can help me. Quarrel with him—he's rather good at a quarrel, and that will divert him and draw him off.'
'Then I'm ready to discuss the matter with him for the rest of the voyage.'
'Very well; I count on you. But he'll ask you, as he asks me, what the deuce you want him to do.'
'To go to bed,' I replied, laughing.
'Oh, it isn't a joke.'
'That's exactly what I told you at first.'
'Yes, but don't exult; I hate people who exult. Jasper wants to know why he should mind her being talked about if she doesn't mind it herself.'
'I'll tell him why,' I replied; and Mrs. Nettlepoint said she should be exceedingly obliged to me and repeated that she would come upstairs.
I looked for Jasper above that same evening, but circumstances did not favour my quest. I found him—that is I discovered that he was again ensconced behind the lifeboat with Miss Mavis; but there was a needless violence in breaking into their communion, and I put off our interview till the next day. Then I took the first opportunity, at breakfast, to make sure of it. He was in the saloon when I went in and was preparing to leave the table; but I stopped him and asked if he would give me a quarter of an hour on deck a little later—there was something particular I wanted to say to him. He said, 'Oh yes, if you like,' with just a visible surprise, but no look of an uncomfortable consciousness. When I had finished my breakfast I found him smoking on the forward-deck and I immediately began: 'I am going to say something that you won't at all like; to ask you a question that you will think impertinent.'
'Impertinent? that's bad.'
'I am a good deal older than you and I am a friend—of many years—of your mother. There's nothing I like less than to be meddlesome, but I think these things give me a certain right—a sort of privilege. For the rest, my inquiry will speak for itself.'
'Why so many preliminaries?' the young man asked, smiling.
We looked into each other's eyes a moment. What indeed was his mother's manner—her best manner—compared with his? 'Are you prepared to be responsible?'
'Dear no—to the young lady herself. I am speaking of course of Miss Mavis.'
'Ah yes, my mother tells me you have her greatly on your mind.'
'So has your mother herself—now.'
'She is so good as to say so—to oblige you.'
'She would oblige me a great deal more by reassuring me. I am aware that you know I have told her that Miss Mavis is greatly talked about.'
'Yes, but what on earth does it matter?'
'It matters as a sign.'
'A sign of what?'
'That she is in a false position.'
Jasper puffed his cigar, with his eyes on the horizon. 'I don't know whether it's your business, what you are attempting to discuss; but it really appears to me it is none of mine. What have I to do with the tattle with which a pack of old women console themselves for not being sea-sick?'
'Do you call it tattle that Miss Mavis is in love with you?'
'Then you are very ungrateful. The tattle of a pack of old women has this importance, that she suspects or knows that it exists, and that nice girls are for the most part very sensitive to that sort of thing. To be prepared not to heed it in this case she must have a reason, and the reason must be the one I have taken the liberty to call your attention to.'
'In love with me in six days, just like that?' said Jasper, smoking.
'There is no accounting for tastes, and six days at sea are equivalent to sixty on land. I don't want to make you too proud. Of course if you recognise your responsibility it's all right and I have nothing to say.'
'I don't see what you mean,' Jasper went on.
'Surely you ought to have thought of that by this time. She's engaged to be married and the gentleman she is engaged to is to meet her at Liverpool. The whole ship knows it (I didn't tell them!) and the whole ship is watching her. It's impertinent if you like, just as I am, but we make a little world here together and we can't blink its conditions. What I ask you is whether you are prepared to allow her to give up the gentleman I have just mentioned for your sake.'
'For my sake?'
'To marry her if she breaks with him.'
Jasper turned his eyes from the horizon to my own, and I found a strange expression in them. 'Has Miss Mavis commissioned you to make this inquiry?'
'Never in the world.'
'Well then, I don't understand it.'
'It isn't from another I make it. Let it come from yourself—to yourself.'
'Lord, you must think I lead myself a life! That's a question the young lady may put to me any moment that it pleases her.'
'Let me then express the hope that she will. But what will you answer?'
'My dear sir, it seems to me that in spite of all the titles you have enumerated you have no reason to expect I will tell you.' He turned away and I exclaimed, sincerely, 'Poor girl!' At this he faced me again and, looking at me from head to foot, demanded: 'What is it you want me to do?'
'I told your mother that you ought to go to bed.'
'You had better do that yourself!'
This time he walked off, and I reflected rather dolefully that the only clear result of my experiment would probably have been to make it vivid to him that she was in love with him. Mrs. Nettlepoint came up as she had announced, but the day was half over: it was nearly three o'clock. She was accompanied by her son, who established her on deck, arranged her chair and her shawls, saw that she was protected from sun and wind, and for an hour was very properly attentive. While this went on Grace Mavis was not visible, nor did she reappear during the whole afternoon. I had not observed that she had as yet been absent from the deck for so long a period. Jasper went away, but he came back at intervals to see how his mother got on, and when she asked him where Miss Mavis was he said he had not the least idea. I sat with Mrs. Nettlepoint at her particular request: she told me she knew that if I left her Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Gotch would come to speak to her. She was flurried and fatigued at having to make an effort, and I think that Grace Mavis's choosing this occasion for retirement suggested to her a little that she had been made a fool of. She remarked that the girl's not being there showed her complete want of breeding and that she was really very good to have put herself out for her so; she was a common creature and that was the end of it. I could see that Mrs. Nettlepoint's advent quickened the speculative activity of the other ladies; they watched her from the opposite side of the deck, keeping their eyes fixed on her very much as the man at the wheel kept his on the course of the ship. Mrs. Peck plainly meditated an approach, and it was from this danger that Mrs. Nettlepoint averted her face.
'It's just as we said,' she remarked to me as we sat there. 'It is like the bucket in the well. When I come up that girl goes down.'
'Yes, but you've succeeded, since Jasper remains here.'
'Remains? I don't see him.'
'He comes and goes—it's the same thing.'
'He goes more than he comes. But n'en parlons plus; I haven't gained anything. I don't admire the sea at all—what is it but a magnified water-tank? I shan't come up again.'
'I have an idea she'll stay in her cabin now,' I said. 'She tells me she has one to herself.' Mrs. Nettlepoint replied that she might do as she liked, and I repeated to her the little conversation I had had with Jasper.
She listened with interest, but 'Marry her? mercy!' she exclaimed. 'I like the manner in which you give my son away.'
'You wouldn't accept that.'
'Never in the world.'
'Then I don't understand your position.'
'Good heavens, I have none! It isn't a position to be bored to death.'
'You wouldn't accept it even in the case I put to him—that of her believing she had been encouraged to throw over poor Porterfield?'
'Not even—not even. Who knows what she believes?'
'Then you do exactly what I said you would—you show me a fine example of maternal immorality.'
'Maternal fiddlesticks! It was she began it.'
'Then why did you come up to-day?'
'To keep you quiet.'
Mrs. Nettlepoint's dinner was served on deck, but I went into the saloon. Jasper was there but not Grace Mavis, as I had half expected. I asked him what had become of her, if she were ill (he must have thought I had an ignoble pertinacity), and he replied that he knew nothing whatever about her. Mrs. Peck talked to me about Mrs. Nettlepoint and said it had been a great interest to her to see her; only it was a pity she didn't seem more sociable. To this I replied that she had to beg to be excused—she was not well.
'You don't mean to say she's sick, on this pond?'
'No, she's unwell in another way.'
'I guess I know the way!' Mrs. Peck laughed. And then she added, 'I suppose she came up to look after her charge.'
'Why, Miss Mavis. We've talked enough about that.'
'Quite enough. I don't know what that had to do with it. Miss Mavis hasn't been there to-day.'
'Oh, it goes on all the same.'
'It goes on?'
'Well, it's too late.'
'Well, you'll see. There'll be a row.'
This was not comforting, but I did not repeat it above. Mrs. Nettlepoint returned early to her cabin, professing herself much tired. I know not what 'went on,' but Grace Mavis continued not to show. I went in late, to bid Mrs. Nettlepoint good-night, and learned from her that the girl had not been to her. She had sent the stewardess to her room for news, to see if she were ill and needed assistance, and the stewardess came back with the information that she was not there. I went above after this; the night was not quite so fair and the deck was almost empty. In a moment Jasper Nettlepoint and our young lady moved past me together. 'I hope you are better!' I called after her; and she replied, over her shoulder—
'Oh, yes, I had a headache; but the air now does me good!'
I went down again—I was the only person there but they, and I wished to not appear to be watching them—and returning to Mrs. Nettlepoint's room found (her door was open into the little passage) that she was still sitting up.
'She's all right!' I said. 'She's on the deck with Jasper.'
The old lady looked up at me from her book. 'I didn't know you called that all right.'
'Well, it's better than something else.'
'Something I was a little afraid of.' Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to look at me; she asked me what that was. 'I'll tell you when we are ashore,' I said.
The next day I went to see her, at the usual hour of my morning visit, and found her in considerable agitation. 'The scenes have begun,' she said; 'you know I told you I shouldn't get through without them! You made me nervous last night—I haven't the least idea what you meant; but you made me nervous. She came in to see me an hour ago, and I had the courage to say to her, "I don't know why I shouldn't tell you frankly that I have been scolding my son about you." Of course she asked me what I meant by that, and I said—"It seems to me he drags you about the ship too much, for a girl in your position. He has the air of not remembering that you belong to some one else. There is a kind of want of taste and even of want of respect in it." That produced an explosion; she became very violent.'
'Do you mean angry?'
'Not exactly angry, but very hot and excited—at my presuming to think her relations with my son were not the simplest in the world. I might scold him as much as I liked—that was between ourselves; but she didn't see why I should tell her that I had done so. Did I think she allowed him to treat her with disrespect? That idea was not very complimentary to her! He had treated her better and been kinder to her than most other people—there were very few on the ship that hadn't been insulting. She should be glad enough when she got off it, to her own people, to some one whom no one would have a right to say anything about. What was there in her position that was not perfectly natural? What was the idea of making a fuss about her position? Did I mean that she took it too easily—that she didn't think as much as she ought about Mr. Porterfield? Didn't I believe she was attached to him—didn't I believe she was just counting the hours until she saw him? That would be the happiest moment of her life. It showed how little I knew her, if I thought anything else.'
'All that must have been rather fine—I should have liked to hear it,' I said. 'And what did you reply?'
'Oh, I grovelled; I told her that I accused her (as regards my son) of nothing worse than an excess of good nature. She helped him to pass his time—he ought to be immensely obliged. Also that it would be a very happy moment for me too when I should hand her over to Mr. Porterfield.'
'And will you come up to-day?'
'No indeed—she'll do very well now.'
I gave a sigh of relief. 'All's well that ends well!'
Jasper, that day, spent a great deal of time with his mother. She had told me that she really had had no proper opportunity to talk over with him their movements after disembarking. Everything changes a little, the last two or three days of a voyage; the spell is broken and new combinations take place. Grace Mavis was neither on deck nor at dinner, and I drew Mrs. Peck's attention to the extreme propriety with which she now conducted herself. She had spent the day in meditation and she judged it best to continue to meditate.
'Ah, she's afraid,' said my implacable neighbour.
'Afraid of what?'
'Well, that we'll tell tales when we get there.'
'Whom do you mean by "we"?'
'Well, there are plenty, on a ship like this.'
'Well then, we won't.'
'Maybe we won't have the chance,' said the dreadful little woman.
'Oh, at that moment a universal geniality reigns.'
'Well, she's afraid, all the same.'
'So much the better.'
'Yes, so much the better.'
All the next day, too, the girl remained invisible and Mrs. Nettlepoint told me that she had not been in to see her. She had inquired by the stewardess if she would receive her in her own cabin, and Grace Mavis had replied that it was littered up with things and unfit for visitors: she was packing a trunk over. Jasper made up for his devotion to his mother the day before by now spending a great deal of his time in the smoking-room. I wanted to say to him 'This is much better,' but I thought it wiser to hold my tongue. Indeed I had begun to feel the emotion of prospective arrival (I was delighted to be almost back in my dear old Europe again) and had less to spare for other matters. It will doubtless appear to the critical reader that I had already devoted far too much to the little episode of which my story gives an account, but to this I can only reply that the event justified me. We sighted land, the dim yet rich coast of Ireland, about sunset and I leaned on the edge of the ship and looked at it. 'It doesn't look like much, does it?' I heard a voice say, beside me; and, turning, I found Grace Mavis was there. Almost for the first time she had her veil up, and I thought her very pale.
'It will be more to-morrow,' I said.
'Oh yes, a great deal more.'
'The first sight of land, at sea, changes everything,' I went on. 'I always think it's like waking up from a dream. It's a return to reality.'
For a moment she made no response to this; then she said, 'It doesn't look very real yet.'
'No, and meanwhile, this lovely evening, the dream is still present.'
She looked up at the sky, which had a brightness, though the light of the sun had left it and that of the stars had not come out. 'It is a lovely evening.'
'Oh yes, with this we shall do.'
She stood there a while longer, while the growing dusk effaced the line of the land more rapidly than our progress made it distinct. She said nothing more, she only looked in front of her; but her very quietness made me want to say something suggestive of sympathy and service. I was unable to think what to say—some things seemed too wide of the mark and others too importunate. At last, unexpectedly, she appeared to give me my chance. Irrelevantly, abruptly she broke out:
'Didn't you tell me that you knew Mr. Porterfield?'
'Dear me, yes—I used to see him. I have often wanted to talk to you about him.'
She turned her face upon me and in the deepened evening I fancied she looked whiter. 'What good would that do?'
'Why, it would be a pleasure,' I replied, rather foolishly.
'Do you mean for you?'
'Well, yes—call it that,' I said, smiling.
'Did you know him so well?'
My smile became a laugh and I said—'You are not easy to make speeches to.'
'I hate speeches!' The words came from her lips with a violence that surprised me; they were loud and hard. But before I had time to wonder at it she went on—'Shall you know him when you see him?'
'Perfectly, I think.' Her manner was so strange that one had to notice it in some way, and it appeared to me the best way was to notice it jocularly; so I added, 'Shan't you?'
'Oh, perhaps you'll point him out!' And she walked quickly away. As I looked after her I had a singular, a perverse and rather an embarrassed sense of having, during the previous days, and especially in speaking to Jasper Nettlepoint, interfered with her situation to her loss. I had a sort of pang in seeing her move about alone; I felt somehow responsible for it and asked myself why I could not have kept my hands off. I had seen Jasper in the smoking-room more than once that day, as I passed it, and half an hour before this I had observed, through the open door, that he was there. He had been with her so much that without him she had a bereaved, forsaken air. It was better, no doubt, but superficially it made her rather pitiable. Mrs. Peck would have told me that their separation was gammon; they didn't show together on deck and in the saloon, but they made it up elsewhere. The secret places on shipboard are not numerous; Mrs. Peck's 'elsewhere' would have been vague and I know not what license her imagination took. It was distinct that Jasper had fallen off, but of course what had passed between them on this subject was not so and could never be. Later, through his mother, I had his version of that, but I may remark that I didn't believe it. Poor Mrs. Nettlepoint did, of course. I was almost capable, after the girl had left me, of going to my young man and saying, 'After all, do return to her a little, just till we get in! It won't make any difference after we land.' And I don't think it was the fear he would tell me I was an idiot that prevented me. At any rate the next time I passed the door of the smoking-room I saw that he had left it. I paid my usual visit to Mrs. Nettlepoint that night, but I troubled her no further about Miss Mavis. She had made up her mind that everything was smooth and settled now, and it seemed to me that I had worried her and that she had worried herself enough. I left her to enjoy the foretaste of arrival, which had taken possession of her mind. Before turning in I went above and found more passengers on deck than I had ever seen so late. Jasper was walking about among them alone, but I forebore to join him. The coast of Ireland had disappeared, but the night and the sea were perfect. On the way to my cabin, when I came down, I met the stewardess in one of the passages and the idea entered my head to say to her—'Do you happen to know where Miss Mavis is?'
'Why, she's in her room, sir, at this hour.'
'Do you suppose I could speak to her?' It had come into my mind to ask her why she had inquired of me whether I should recognise Mr. Porterfield.
'No, sir,' said the stewardess; 'she has gone to bed.'
'That's all right.' And I followed the young lady's excellent example.
The next morning, while I was dressing, the steward of my side of the ship came to me as usual to see what I wanted. But the first thing he said to me was—'Rather a bad job, sir—a passenger missing.'
'A lady, sir. I think you knew her. Miss Mavis, sir.'
'Missing?' I cried—staring at him, horror-stricken.
'She's not on the ship. They can't find her.'
'Then where to God is she?'
I remember his queer face. 'Well sir, I suppose you know that as well as I.'
'Do you mean she has jumped overboard?'
'Some time in the night, sir—on the quiet. But it's beyond every one, the way she escaped notice. They usually sees 'em, sir. It must have been about half-past two. Lord, but she was clever, sir. She didn't so much as make a splash. They say she 'ad come against her will, sir.'
I had dropped upon my sofa—I felt faint. The man went on, liking to talk, as persons of his class do when they have something horrible to tell. She usually rang for the stewardess early, but this morning of course there had been no ring. The stewardess had gone in all the same about eight o'clock and found the cabin empty. That was about an hour ago. Her things were there in confusion—the things she usually wore when she went above. The stewardess thought she had been rather strange last night, but she waited a little and then went back. Miss Mavis hadn't turned up—and she didn't turn up. The stewardess began to look for her—she hadn't been seen on deck or in the saloon. Besides, she wasn't dressed—not to show herself; all her clothes were in her room. There was another lady, an old lady, Mrs. Nettlepoint—I would know her—that she was sometimes with, but the stewardess had been with her and she knew Miss Mavis had not come near her that morning. She had spoken to him and they had taken a quiet look—they had hunted everywhere. A ship's a big place, but you do come to the end of it, and if a person ain't there why they ain't. In short an hour had passed and the young lady was not accounted for: from which I might judge if she ever would be. The watch couldn't account for her, but no doubt the fishes in the sea could—poor miserable lady! The stewardess and he, they had of course thought it their duty very soon to speak to the doctor, and the doctor had spoken immediately to the captain. The captain didn't like it—they never did. But he would try to keep it quiet—they always did.
By the time I succeeded in pulling myself together and getting on, after a fashion, the rest of my clothes I had learned that Mrs. Nettlepoint had not yet been informed, unless the stewardess had broken it to her within the previous few minutes. Her son knew, the young gentleman on the other side of the ship (he had the other steward); my man had seen him come out of his cabin and rush above, just before he came in to me. He had gone above, my man was sure; he had not gone to the old lady's cabin. I remember a queer vision when the steward told me this—the wild flash of a picture of Jasper Nettlepoint leaping with a mad compunction in his young agility over the side of the ship. I hasten to add that no such incident was destined to contribute its horror to poor Grace Mavis's mysterious tragic act. What followed was miserable enough, but I can only glance at it. When I got to Mrs. Nettlepoint's door she was there in her dressing-gown; the stewardess had just told her and she was rushing out to come to me. I made her go back—I said I would go for Jasper. I went for him but I missed him, partly no doubt because it was really, at first, the captain I was after. I found this personage and found him highly scandalised, but he gave me no hope that we were in error, and his displeasure, expressed with seamanlike plainness, was a definite settlement of the question. From the deck, where I merely turned round and looked, I saw the light of another summer day, the coast of Ireland green and near and the sea a more charming colour than it had been at all. When I came below again Jasper had passed back; he had gone to his cabin and his mother had joined him there. He remained there till we reached Liverpool—I never saw him. His mother, after a little, at his request, left him alone. All the world went above to look at the land and chatter about our tragedy, but the poor lady spent the day, dismally enough, in her room. It seemed to me intolerably long; I was thinking so of vague Porterfield and of my prospect of having to face him on the morrow. Now of course I knew why she had asked me if I should recognise him; she had delegated to me mentally a certain pleasant office. I gave Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Gotch a wide berth—I couldn't talk to them. I could, or at least I did a little, to Mrs. Nettlepoint, but with too many reserves for comfort on either side, for I foresaw that it would not in the least do now to mention Jasper to her. I was obliged to assume by my silence that he had had nothing to do with what had happened; and of course I never really ascertained what he had had to do. The secret of what passed between him and the strange girl who would have sacrificed her marriage to him on so short an acquaintance remains shut up in his breast. His mother, I know, went to his door from time to time, but he refused her admission. That evening, to be human at a venture, I requested the steward to go in and ask him if he should care to see me, and the attendant returned with an answer which he candidly transmitted. 'Not in the least!' Jasper apparently was almost as scandalised as the captain.
At Liverpool, at the dock, when we had touched, twenty people came on board and I had already made out Mr. Porterfield at a distance. He was looking up at the side of the great vessel with disappointment written (to my eyes) in his face—disappointment at not seeing the woman he loved lean over it and wave her handkerchief to him. Every one was looking at him, every one but she (his identity flew about in a moment) and I wondered if he did not observe it. He used to be lean, he had grown almost fat. The interval between us diminished—he was on the plank and then on the deck with the jostling officers of the customs—all too soon for my equanimity. I met him instantly however, laid my hand on him and drew him away, though I perceived that he had no impression of having seen me before. It was not till afterwards that I thought this a little stupid of him. I drew him far away (I was conscious of Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Gotch looking at us as we passed) into the empty, stale smoking-room; he remained speechless, and that struck me as like him. I had to speak first, he could not even relieve me by saying 'Is anything the matter?' I told him first that she was ill. It was an odious moment.
The train was half an hour late and the drive from the station longer than he had supposed, so that when he reached the house its inmates had dispersed to dress for dinner and he was conducted straight to his room. The curtains were drawn in this asylum, the candles were lighted, the fire was bright, and when the servant had quickly put out his clothes the comfortable little place became suggestive—seemed to promise a pleasant house, a various party, talks, acquaintances, affinities, to say nothing of very good cheer. He was too occupied with his profession to pay many country visits, but he had heard people who had more time for them speak of establishments where 'they do you very well.' He foresaw that the proprietors of Stayes would do him very well. In his bedroom at a country house he always looked first at the books on the shelf and the prints on the walls; he considered that these things gave a sort of measure of the culture and even of the character of his hosts. Though he had but little time to devote to them on this occasion a cursory inspection assured him that if the literature, as usual, was mainly American and humorous the art consisted neither of the water-colour studies of the children nor of 'goody' engravings. The walls were adorned with old-fashioned lithographs, principally portraits of country gentlemen with high collars and riding gloves: this suggested—and it was encouraging—that the tradition of portraiture was held in esteem. There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu, for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight. Oliver Lyon could scarcely forbear beginning it while he buttoned his shirt.
Perhaps that is why he not only found every one assembled in the hall when he went down, but perceived from the way the move to dinner was instantly made that they had been waiting for him. There was no delay, to introduce him to a lady, for he went out in a group of unmatched men, without this appendage. The men, straggling behind, sidled and edged as usual at the door of the dining-room, and the denouement of this little comedy was that he came to his place last of all. This made him think that he was in a sufficiently distinguished company, for if he had been humiliated (which he was not), he could not have consoled himself with the reflection that such a fate was natural to an obscure, struggling young artist. He could no longer think of himself as very young, alas, and if his position was not so brilliant as it ought to be he could no longer justify it by calling it a struggle. He was something of a celebrity and he was apparently in a society of celebrities. This idea added to the curiosity with which he looked up and down the long table as he settled himself in his place.
It was a numerous party—five and twenty people; rather an odd occasion to have proposed to him, as he thought. He would not be surrounded by the quiet that ministers to good work; however, it had never interfered with his work to see the spectacle of human life before him in the intervals. And though he did not know it, it was never quiet at Stayes. When he was working well he found himself in that happy state—the happiest of all for an artist—in which things in general contribute to the particular idea and fall in with it, help it on and justify it, so that he feels for the hour as if nothing in the world can happen to him, even if it come in the guise of disaster or suffering, that will not be an enhancement of his subject. Moreover there was an exhilaration (he had felt it before) in the rapid change of scene—the jump, in the dusk of the afternoon, from foggy London and his familiar studio to a centre of festivity in the middle of Hertfordshire and a drama half acted, a drama of pretty women and noted men and wonderful orchids in silver jars. He observed as a not unimportant fact that one of the pretty women was beside him: a gentleman sat on his other hand. But he went into his neighbours little as yet: he was busy looking out for Sir David, whom he had never seen and about whom he naturally was curious.
Evidently, however, Sir David was not at dinner, a circumstance sufficiently explained by the other circumstance which constituted our friend's principal knowledge of him—his being ninety years of age. Oliver Lyon had looked forward with great pleasure to the chance of painting a nonagenarian, and though the old man's absence from table was something of a disappointment (it was an opportunity the less to observe him before going to work), it seemed a sign that he was rather a sacred and perhaps therefore an impressive relic. Lyon looked at his son with the greater interest—wondered whether the glazed bloom of his cheek had been transmitted from Sir David. That would be jolly to paint, in the old man—the withered ruddiness of a winter apple, especially if the eye were still alive and the white hair carried out the frosty look. Arthur Ashmore's hair had a midsummer glow, but Lyon was glad his commission had been to delineate the father rather than the son, in spite of his never having seen the one and of the other being seated there before him now in the happy expansion of liberal hospitality.
Arthur Ashmore was a fresh-coloured, thick-necked English gentleman, but he was just not a subject; he might have been a farmer and he might have been a banker: you could scarcely paint him in characters. His wife did not make up the amount; she was a large, bright, negative woman, who had the same air as her husband of being somehow tremendously new; a sort of appearance of fresh varnish (Lyon could scarcely tell whether it came from her complexion or from her clothes), so that one felt she ought to sit in a gilt frame, suggesting reference to a catalogue or a price-list. It was as if she were already rather a bad though expensive portrait, knocked off by an eminent hand, and Lyon had no wish to copy that work. The pretty woman on his right was engaged with her neighbour and the gentleman on his other side looked shrinking and scared, so that he had time to lose himself in his favourite diversion of watching face after face. This amusement gave him the greatest pleasure he knew, and he often thought it a mercy that the human mask did interest him and that it was not less vivid than it was (sometimes it ran its success in this line very close), since he was to make his living by reproducing it. Even if Arthur Ashmore would not be inspiring to paint (a certain anxiety rose in him lest if he should make a hit with her father-in-law Mrs. Arthur should take it into her head that he had now proved himself worthy to aborder her husband); even if he had looked a little less like a page (fine as to print and margin) without punctuation, he would still be a refreshing, iridescent surface. But the gentleman four persons off—what was he? Would he be a subject, or was his face only the legible door-plate of his identity, burnished with punctual washing and shaving—the least thing that was decent that you would know him by?
This face arrested Oliver Lyon: it struck him at first as very handsome. The gentleman might still be called young, and his features were regular: he had a plentiful, fair moustache that curled up at the ends, a brilliant, gallant, almost adventurous air, and a big shining breastpin in the middle of his shirt. He appeared a fine satisfied soul, and Lyon perceived that wherever he rested his friendly eye there fell an influence as pleasant as the September sun—as if he could make grapes and pears or even human affection ripen by looking at them. What was odd in him was a certain mixture of the correct and the extravagant: as if he were an adventurer imitating a gentleman with rare perfection or a gentleman who had taken a fancy to go about with hidden arms. He might have been a dethroned prince or the war-correspondent of a newspaper: he represented both enterprise and tradition, good manners and bad taste. Lyon at length fell into conversation with the lady beside him—they dispensed, as he had had to dispense at dinner-parties before, with an introduction—by asking who this personage might be.
'Oh, he's Colonel Capadose, don't you know?' Lyon didn't know and he asked for further information. His neighbour had a sociable manner and evidently was accustomed to quick transitions; she turned from her other interlocutor with a methodical air, as a good cook lifts the cover of the next saucepan. 'He has been a great deal in India—isn't he rather celebrated?' she inquired. Lyon confessed he had never heard of him, and she went on, 'Well, perhaps he isn't; but he says he is, and if you think it, that's just the same, isn't it?'
'If you think it?'
'I mean if he thinks it—that's just as good, I suppose.'
'Do you mean that he says that which is not?'
'Oh dear, no—because I never know. He is exceedingly clever and amusing—quite the cleverest person in the house, unless indeed you are more so. But that I can't tell yet, can I? I only know about the people I know; I think that's celebrity enough!'
'Enough for them?'
'Oh, I see you're clever. Enough for me! But I have heard of you,' the lady went on. 'I know your pictures; I admire them. But I don't think you look like them.'
'They are mostly portraits,' Lyon said; 'and what I usually try for is not my own resemblance.'
'I see what you mean. But they have much more colour. And now you are going to do some one here?'
'I have been invited to do Sir David. I'm rather disappointed at not seeing him this evening.'
'Oh, he goes to bed at some unnatural hour—eight o'clock or something of that sort. You know he's rather an old mummy.'
'An old mummy?' Oliver Lyon repeated.
'I mean he wears half a dozen waistcoats, and that sort of thing. He's always cold.'
'I have never seen him and never seen any portrait or photograph of him,' Lyon said. 'I'm surprised at his never having had anything done—at their waiting all these years.'
'Ah, that's because he was afraid, you know; it was a kind of superstition. He was sure that if anything were done he would die directly afterwards. He has only consented to-day.'
'He's ready to die then?'
'Oh, now he's so old he doesn't care.'
'Well, I hope I shan't kill him,' said Lyon. 'It was rather unnatural in his son to send for me.'
'Oh, they have nothing to gain—everything is theirs already!' his companion rejoined, as if she took this speech quite literally. Her talkativeness was systematic—she fraternised as seriously as she might have played whist. 'They do as they like—they fill the house with people—they have carte blanche.'
'I see—but there's still the title.'
'Yes, but what is it?'
Our artist broke into laughter at this, whereat his companion stared. Before he had recovered himself she was scouring the plain with her other neighbour. The gentleman on his left at last risked an observation, and they had some fragmentary talk. This personage played his part with difficulty: he uttered a remark as a lady fires a pistol, looking the other way. To catch the ball Lyon had to bend his ear, and this movement led to his observing a handsome creature who was seated on the same side, beyond his interlocutor. Her profile was presented to him and at first he was only struck with its beauty; then it produced an impression still more agreeable—a sense of undimmed remembrance and intimate association. He had not recognised her on the instant only because he had so little expected to see her there; he had not seen her anywhere for so long, and no news of her ever came to him. She was often in his thoughts, but she had passed out of his life. He thought of her twice a week; that may be called often in relation to a person one has not seen for twelve years. The moment after he recognised her he felt how true it was that it was only she who could look like that: of the most charming head in the world (and this lady had it) there could never be a replica. She was leaning forward a little; she remained in profile, apparently listening to some one on the other side of her. She was listening, but she was also looking, and after a moment Lyon followed the direction of her eyes. They rested upon the gentleman who had been described to him as Colonel Capadose—rested, as it appeared to him, with a kind of habitual, visible complacency. This was not strange, for the Colonel was unmistakably formed to attract the sympathetic gaze of woman; but Lyon was slightly disappointed that she could let him look at her so long without giving him a glance. There was nothing between them to-day and he had no rights, but she must have known he was coming (it was of course not such a tremendous event, but she could not have been staying in the house without hearing of it), and it was not natural that that should absolutely fail to affect her.
She was looking at Colonel Capadose as if she were in love with him—a queer accident for the proudest, most reserved of women. But doubtless it was all right, if her husband liked it or didn't notice it: he had heard indefinitely, years before, that she was married, and he took for granted (as he had not heard that she had become a widow) the presence of the happy man on whom she had conferred what she had refused to him, the poor art-student at Munich. Colonel Capadose appeared to be aware of nothing, and this circumstance, incongruously enough, rather irritated Lyon than gratified him. Suddenly the lady turned her head, showing her full face to our hero. He was so prepared with a greeting that he instantly smiled, as a shaken jug overflows; but she gave him no response, turned away again and sank back in her chair. All that her face said in that instant was, 'You see I'm as handsome as ever.' To which he mentally subjoined, 'Yes, and as much good it does me!' He asked the young man beside him if he knew who that beautiful being was—the fifth person beyond him. The young man leaned forward, considered and then said, 'I think she's Mrs. Capadose.'
'Do you mean his wife—that fellow's?' And Lyon indicated the subject of the information given him by his other neighbour.
'Oh, is he Mr. Capadose?' said the young man, who appeared very vague. He admitted his vagueness and explained it by saying that there were so many people and he had come only the day before. What was definite to Lyon was that Mrs. Capadose was in love with her husband; so that he wished more than ever that he had married her.
'She's very faithful,' he found himself saying three minutes later to the lady on his right. He added that he meant Mrs. Capadose.
'Ah, you know her then?'
'I knew her once upon a time—when I was living abroad.'
'Why then were you asking me about her husband?'
'Precisely for that reason. She married after that—I didn't even know her present name.'
'How then do you know it now?'
'This gentleman has just told me—he appears to know.'
'I didn't know he knew anything,' said the lady, glancing forward.
'I don't think he knows anything but that.'
'Then you have found out for yourself that she is faithful. What do you mean by that?'
'Ah, you mustn't question me—I want to question you,' Lyon said. 'How do you all like her here?'
'You ask too much! I can only speak for myself. I think she's hard.'
'That's only because she's honest and straightforward.'
'Do you mean I like people in proportion as they deceive?'
'I think we all do, so long as we don't find them out,' Lyon said. 'And then there's something in her face—a sort of Roman type, in spite of her having such an English eye. In fact she's English down to the ground; but her complexion, her low forehead and that beautiful close little wave in her dark hair make her look like a glorified contadina.'
'Yes, and she always sticks pins and daggers into her head, to increase that effect. I must say I like her husband better: he is so clever.'
'Well, when I knew her there was no comparison that could injure her. She was altogether the most delightful thing in Munich.'
'Her people lived there; they were not rich—in pursuit of economy in fact, and Munich was very cheap. Her father was the younger son of some noble house; he had married a second time and had a lot of little mouths to feed. She was the child of the first wife and she didn't like her stepmother, but she was charming to her little brothers and sisters. I once made a sketch of her as Werther's Charlotte, cutting bread and butter while they clustered all round her. All the artists in the place were in love with her but she wouldn't look at 'the likes' of us. She was too proud—I grant you that; but she wasn't stuck up nor young ladyish; she was simple and frank and kind about it. She used to remind me of Thackeray's Ethel Newcome. She told me she must marry well: it was the one thing she could do for her family. I suppose you would say that she has married well.'
'She told you?' smiled Lyon's neighbour.
'Oh, of course I proposed to her too. But she evidently thinks so herself!' he added.
When the ladies left the table the host as usual bade the gentlemen draw together, so that Lyon found himself opposite to Colonel Capadose. The conversation was mainly about the 'run,' for it had apparently been a great day in the hunting-field. Most of the gentlemen communicated their adventures and opinions, but Colonel Capadose's pleasant voice was the most audible in the chorus. It was a bright and fresh but masculine organ, just such a voice as, to Lyon's sense, such a 'fine man' ought to have had. It appeared from his remarks that he was a very straight rider, which was also very much what Lyon would have expected. Not that he swaggered, for his allusions were very quietly and casually made; but they were all too dangerous experiments and close shaves. Lyon perceived after a little that the attention paid by the company to the Colonel's remarks was not in direct relation to the interest they seemed to offer; the result of which was that the speaker, who noticed that he at least was listening, began to treat him as his particular auditor and to fix his eyes on him as he talked. Lyon had nothing to do but to look sympathetic and assent—Colonel Capadose appeared to take so much sympathy and assent for granted. A neighbouring squire had had an accident; he had come a cropper in an awkward place—just at the finish—with consequences that looked grave. He had struck his head; he remained insensible, up to the last accounts: there had evidently been concussion of the brain. There was some exchange of views as to his recovery—how soon it would take place or whether it would take place at all; which led the Colonel to confide to our artist across the table that he shouldn't despair of a fellow even if he didn't come round for weeks—for weeks and weeks and weeks—for months, almost for years. He leaned forward; Lyon leaned forward to listen, and Colonel Capadose mentioned that he knew from personal experience that there was really no limit to the time one might lie unconscious without being any the worse for it. It had happened to him in Ireland, years before; he had been pitched out of a dogcart, had turned a sheer somersault and landed on his head. They thought he was dead, but he wasn't; they carried him first to the nearest cabin, where he lay for some days with the pigs, and then to an inn in a neighbouring town—it was a near thing they didn't put him under ground. He had been completely insensible—without a ray of recognition of any human thing—for three whole months; had not a glimmer of consciousness of any blessed thing. It was touch and go to that degree that they couldn't come near him, they couldn't feed him, they could scarcely look at him. Then one day he had opened his eyes—as fit as a flea!