The Patagonia, by Henry James

I

The houses were dark in the August night and the perspective of Beacon Street, with its double chain of lamps, was a foreshortened desert. The club on the hill alone, from its semi-cylindrical front, projected a glow upon the dusky vagueness of the Common, and as I passed it I heard in the hot stillness the click of a pair of billiard balls. As ‘every one’ was out of town perhaps the servants, in the extravagance of their leisure, were profaning the tables. The heat was insufferable and I thought with joy of the morrow, of the deck of the steamer, the freshening breeze, the sense of getting out to sea. I was even glad of what I had learned in the afternoon at the office of the company — that at the eleventh hour an old ship with a lower standard of speed had been put on in place of the vessel in which I had taken my passage. America was roasting, England might very well be stuffy, and a slow passage (which at that season of the year would probably also be a fine one) was a guarantee of ten or twelve days of fresh air.

I strolled down the hill without meeting a creature, though I could see through the palings of the Common that that recreative expanse was peopled with dim forms. I remembered Mrs. Nettlepoint’s house — she lived in those days (they are not so distant, but there have been changes) on the water-side, a little way beyond the spot at which the Public Garden terminates; and I reflected that like myself she would be spending the night in Boston if it were true that, as had been mentioned to me a few days before at Mount Desert, she was to embark on the morrow for Liverpool. I presently saw this appearance confirmed by a light above her door and in two or three of her windows, and I determined to ask for her, having nothing to do till bedtime. I had come out simply to pass an hour, leaving my hotel to the blaze of its gas and the perspiration of its porters; but it occurred to me that my old friend might very well not know of the substitution of the Patagonia for the Scandinavia, so that it would be an act of consideration to prepare her mind. Besides, I could offer to help her, to look after her in the morning: lone women are grateful for support in taking ship for far countries.

As I stood on her doorstep I remembered that as she had a son she might not after all be so lone; yet at the same time it was present to me that Jasper Nettlepoint was not quite a young man to lean upon, having (as I at least supposed) a life of his own and tastes and habits which had long since drawn him away from the maternal side. If he did happen just now to be at home my solicitude would of course seem officious; for in his many wanderings — I believed he had roamed all over the globe — he would certainly have learned how to manage. None the less I was very glad to show Mrs. Nettlepoint I thought of her. With my long absence I had lost sight of her; but I had liked her of old; she had been a close friend of my sisters; and I had in regard to her that sense which is pleasant to those who, in general, have grown strange or detached — the feeling that she at least knew all about me. I could trust her at any time to tell people what a respectable person I was. Perhaps I was conscious of how little I deserved this indulgence when it came over me that for years I had not communicated with her. The measure of this neglect was given by my vagueness of mind about her son. However, I really belonged nowadays to a different generation: I was more the old lady’s contemporary than Jasper’s.

Mrs. Nettlepoint was at home: I found her in her back drawing-room, where the wide windows opened upon the water. The room was dusky — it was too hot for lamps — and she sat slowly moving her fan and looking out on the little arm of the sea which is so pretty at night, reflecting the lights of Cambridgeport and Charlestown. I supposed she was musing upon the loved ones she was to leave behind, her married daughters, her grandchildren; but she struck a note more specifically Bostonian as she said to me, pointing with her fan to the Back Bay — ‘I shall see nothing more charming than that over there, you know!’ She made me very welcome, but her son had told her about the Patagonia, for which she was sorry, as this would mean a longer voyage. She was a poor creature on shipboard and mainly confined to her cabin, even in weather extravagantly termed fine — as if any weather could be fine at sea.

‘Ah, then your son’s going with you?’ I asked.

‘Here he comes, he will tell you for himself much better than I am able to do.’

Jasper Nettlepoint came into the room at that moment, dressed in white flannel and carrying a large fan.

‘Well, my dear, have you decided?’ his mother continued, with some irony in her tone. ‘He hasn’t yet made up his mind, and we sail at ten o’clock!’

‘What does it matter, when my things are put up?’ said the young man. ‘There is no crowd at this moment; there will be cabins to spare. I’m waiting for a telegram — that will settle it. I just walked up to the club to see if it was come — they’ll send it there because they think the house is closed. Not yet, but I shall go back in twenty minutes.’

‘Mercy, how you rush about in this temperature!’ his mother exclaimed, while I reflected that it was perhaps his billiard-balls I had heard ten minutes before. I was sure he was fond of billiards.

‘Rush? not in the least. I take it uncommonly easy.’

‘Ah, I’m bound to say you do,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint exclaimed, inconsequently. I divined that there was a certain tension between the pair and a want of consideration on the young man’s part, arising perhaps from selfishness. His mother was nervous, in suspense, wanting to be at rest as to whether she should have his company on the voyage or be obliged to make it alone. But as he stood there smiling and slowly moving his fan he struck me somehow as a person on whom this fact would not sit very heavily. He was of the type of those whom other people worry about, not of those who worry about other people. Tall and strong, he had a handsome face, with a round head and close-curling hair; the whites of his eyes and the enamel of his teeth, under his brown moustache, gleamed vaguely in the lights of the Back Bay. I made out that he was sunburnt, as if he lived much in the open air, and that he looked intelligent but also slightly brutal, though not in a morose way. His brutality, if he had any, was bright and finished. I had to tell him who I was, but even then I saw that he failed to place me and that my explanations gave me in his mind no great identity or at any rate no great importance. I foresaw that he would in intercourse make me feel sometimes very young and sometimes very old. He mentioned, as if to show his mother that he might safely be left to his own devices, that he had once started from London to Bombay at three-quarters of an hour’s notice.

‘Yes, and it must have been pleasant for the people you were with!’

‘Oh, the people I was with ——!’ he rejoined; and his tone appeared to signify that such people would always have to come off as they could. He asked if there were no cold drinks in the house, no lemonade, no iced syrups; in such weather something of that sort ought always to be kept going. When his mother remarked that surely at the club they were going he went on, ‘Oh, yes, I had various things there; but you know I have walked down the hill since. One should have something at either end. May I ring and see?’ He rang while Mrs. Nettlepoint observed that with the people they had in the house — an establishment reduced naturally at such a moment to its simplest expression (they were burning-up candle-ends and there were no luxuries) she would not answer for the service. The matter ended in the old lady’s going out of the room in quest of syrup with the female domestic who had appeared in response to the bell and in whom Jasper’s appeal aroused no visible intelligence.

She remained away some time and I talked with her son, who was sociable but desultory and kept moving about the room, always with his fan, as if he were impatient. Sometimes he seated himself for an instant on the window-sill, and then I saw that he was in fact very good-looking; a fine brown, clean young athlete. He never told me on what special contingency his decision depended; he only alluded familiarly to an expected telegram, and I perceived that he was probably not addicted to copious explanations. His mother’s absence was an indication that when it was a question of gratifying him she had grown used to spare no pains, and I fancied her rummaging in some close storeroom, among old preserve-pots, while the dull maid-servant held the candle awry. I know not whether this same vision was in his own eyes; at all events it did not prevent him from saying suddenly, as he looked at his watch, that I must excuse him, as he had to go back to the club. He would return in half an hour — or in less. He walked away and I sat there alone, conscious, in the dark, dismantled, simplified room, in the deep silence that rests on American towns during the hot season (there was now and then a far cry or a plash in the water, and at intervals the tinkle of the bells of the horse-cars on the long bridge, slow in the suffocating night), of the strange influence, half sweet, half sad, that abides in houses uninhabited or about to become so — in places muffled and bereaved, where the unheeded sofas and patient belittered tables seem to know (like the disconcerted dogs) that it is the eve of a journey.

After a while I heard the sound of voices, of steps, the rustle of dresses, and I looked round, supposing these things to be the sign of the return of Mrs. Nettlepoint and her handmaiden, bearing the refreshment prepared for her son. What I saw however was two other female forms, visitors just admitted apparently, who were ushered into the room. They were not announced — the servant turned her back on them and rambled off to our hostess. They came forward in a wavering, tentative, unintroduced way — partly, I could see, because the place was dark and partly because their visit was in its nature experimental, a stretch of confidence. One of the ladies was stout and the other was slim, and I perceived in a moment that one was talkative and the other silent. I made out further that one was elderly and the other young and that the fact that they were so unlike did not prevent their being mother and daughter. Mrs. Nettlepoint reappeared in a very few minutes, but the interval had sufficed to establish a communication (really copious for the occasion) between the strangers and the unknown gentleman whom they found in possession, hat and stick in hand. This was not my doing (for what had I to go upon?) and still less was it the doing of the person whom I supposed and whom I indeed quickly and definitely learned to be the daughter. She spoke but once — when her companion informed me that she was going out to Europe the next day to be married. Then she said, ‘Oh, mother!’ protestingly, in a tone which struck me in the darkness as doubly strange, exciting my curiosity to see her face.

It had taken her mother but a moment to come to that and to other things besides, after I had explained that I myself was waiting for Mrs. Nettlepoint, who would doubtless soon come back.

‘Well, she won’t know me — I guess she hasn’t ever heard much about me,’ the good lady said; ‘but I have come from Mrs. Allen and I guess that will make it all right. I presume you know Mrs. Allen?’

I was unacquainted with this influential personage, but I assented vaguely to the proposition. Mrs. Allen’s emissary was good-humoured and familiar, but rather appealing than insistent (she remarked that if her friend had found time to come in the afternoon — she had so much to do, being just up for the day, that she couldn’t be sure — it would be all right); and somehow even before she mentioned Merrimac Avenue (they had come all the way from there) my imagination had associated her with that indefinite social limbo known to the properly-constituted Boston mind as the South End — a nebulous region which condenses here and there into a pretty face, in which the daughters are an ‘improvement’ on the mothers and are sometimes acquainted with gentlemen resident in more distinguished districts of the New England capital — gentlemen whose wives and sisters in turn are not acquainted with them.

When at last Mrs. Nettlepoint came in, accompanied by candles and by a tray laden with glasses of coloured fluid which emitted a cool tinkling, I was in a position to officiate as master of the ceremonies, to introduce Mrs. Mavis and Miss Grace Mavis, to represent that Mrs. Allen had recommended them — nay, had urged them — to come that way, informally, and had been prevented only by the pressure of occupations so characteristic of her (especially when she was up from Mattapoisett just for a few hours’ shopping) from herself calling in the course of the day to explain who they were and what was the favour they had to ask of Mrs. Nettlepoint. Good-natured women understand each other even when divided by the line of topographical fashion, and our hostess had quickly mastered the main facts: Mrs. Allen’s visit in the morning in Merrimac Avenue to talk of Mrs. Amber’s great idea, the classes at the public schools in vacation (she was interested with an equal charity to that of Mrs. Mavis — even in such weather! — in those of the South End) for games and exercises and music, to keep the poor unoccupied children out of the streets; then the revelation that it had suddenly been settled almost from one hour to the other that Grace should sail for Liverpool, Mr. Porterfield at last being ready. He was taking a little holiday; his mother was with him, they had come over from Paris to see some of the celebrated old buildings in England, and he had telegraphed to say that if Grace would start right off they would just finish it up and be married. It often happened that when things had dragged on that way for years they were all huddled up at the end. Of course in such a case she, Mrs. Mavis, had had to fly round. Her daughter’s passage was taken, but it seemed too dreadful that she should make her journey all alone, the first time she had ever been at sea, without any companion or escort. She couldn’t go — Mr. Mavis was too sick: she hadn’t even been able to get him off to the seaside.

‘Well, Mrs. Nettlepoint is going in that ship,’ Mrs. Allen had said; and she had represented that nothing was simpler than to put the girl in her charge. When Mrs. Mavis had replied that that was all very well but that she didn’t know the lady, Mrs. Allen had declared that that didn’t make a speck of difference, for Mrs. Nettlepoint was kind enough for anything. It was easy enough to know her, if that was all the trouble. All Mrs. Mavis would have to do would be to go up to her the next morning when she took her daughter to the ship (she would see her there on the deck with her party) and tell her what she wanted. Mrs. Nettlepoint had daughters herself and she would easily understand. Very likely she would even look after Grace a little on the other side, in such a queer situation, going out alone to the gentleman she was engaged to; she would just help her to turn round before she was married. Mr. Porterfield seemed to think they wouldn’t wait long, once she was there: they would have it right over at the American consul’s. Mrs. Allen had said it would perhaps be better still to go and see Mrs. Nettlepoint beforehand, that day, to tell her what they wanted: then they wouldn’t seem to spring it on her just as she was leaving. She herself (Mrs. Allen) would call and say a word for them if she could save ten minutes before catching her train. If she hadn’t come it was because she hadn’t saved her ten minutes; but she had made them feel that they must come all the same. Mrs. Mavis liked that better, because on the ship in the morning there would be such a confusion. She didn’t think her daughter would be any trouble — conscientiously she didn’t. It was just to have some one to speak to her and not sally forth like a servant-girl going to a situation.

‘I see, I am to act as a sort of bridesmaid and to give her away,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint. She was in fact kind enough for anything and she showed on this occasion that it was easy enough to know her. There is nothing more tiresome than complications at sea, but she accepted without a protest the burden of the young lady’s dependence and allowed her, as Mrs. Mavis said, to hook herself on. She evidently had the habit of patience, and her reception of her visitors’ story reminded me afresh (I was reminded of it whenever I returned to my native land) that my dear compatriots are the people in the world who most freely take mutual accommodation for granted. They have always had to help themselves, and by a magnanimous extension they confound helping each other with that. In no country are there fewer forms and more reciprocities.

It was doubtless not singular that the ladies from Merrimac Avenue should not feel that they were importunate: what was striking was that Mrs. Nettlepoint did not appear to suspect it. However, she would in any case have thought it inhuman to show that — though I could see that under the surface she was amused at everything the lady from the South End took for granted. I know not whether the attitude of the younger visitor added or not to the merit of her good-nature. Mr. Porterfield’s intended took no part in her mother’s appeal, scarcely spoke, sat looking at the Back Bay and the lights on the long bridge. She declined the lemonade and the other mixtures which, at Mrs. Nettlepoint’s request, I offered her, while her mother partook freely of everything and I reflected (for I as freely consumed the reviving liquid) that Mr. Jasper had better hurry back if he wished to profit by the refreshment prepared for him.

Was the effect of the young woman’s reserve ungracious, or was it only natural that in her particular situation she should not have a flow of compliment at her command? I noticed that Mrs. Nettlepoint looked at her often, and certainly though she was undemonstrative Miss Mavis was interesting. The candle-light enabled me to see that if she was not in the very first flower of her youth she was still a handsome girl. Her eyes and hair were dark, her face was pale and she held up her head as if, with its thick braids, it were an appurtenance she was not ashamed of. If her mother was excellent and common she was not common (not flagrantly so) and perhaps not excellent. At all events she would not be, in appearance at least, a dreary appendage, and (in the case of a person ‘hooking on’) that was always something gained. Is it because something of a romantic or pathetic interest usually attaches to a good creature who has been the victim of a ‘long engagement’ that this young lady made an impression on me from the first — favoured as I had been so quickly with this glimpse of her history? Certainly she made no positive appeal; she only held her tongue and smiled, and her smile corrected whatever suggestion might have forced itself upon me that the spirit was dead — the spirit of that promise of which she found herself doomed to carry out the letter.

What corrected it less, I must add, was an odd recollection which gathered vividness as I listened to it — a mental association which the name of Mr. Porterfield had evoked. Surely I had a personal impression, over-smeared and confused, of the gentleman who was waiting at Liverpool, or who would be, for Mrs. Nettlepoint’s protégée. I had met him, known him, some time, somewhere, somehow, in Europe. Was he not studying something — very hard — somewhere, probably in Paris, ten years before, and did he not make extraordinarily neat drawings, linear and architectural? Didn’t he go to a table d’hôte, at two francs twenty-five, in the Rue Bonaparte, which I then frequented, and didn’t he wear spectacles and a Scotch plaid arranged in a manner which seemed to say, ‘I have trustworthy information that that is the way they do it in the Highlands’? Was he not exemplary and very poor, so that I supposed he had no overcoat and his tartan was what he slept under at night? Was he not working very hard still, and wouldn’t he be in the natural course, not yet satisfied that he knew enough to launch out? He would be a man of long preparations — Miss Mavis’s white face seemed to speak to one of that. It appeared to me that if I had been in love with her I should not have needed to lay such a train to marry her. Architecture was his line and he was a pupil of the École des Beaux Arts. This reminiscence grew so much more vivid with me that at the end of ten minutes I had a curious sense of knowing — by implication — a good deal about the young lady.

Even after it was settled that Mrs. Nettlepoint would do everything for her that she could her mother sat a little, sipping her syrup and telling how ‘low’ Mr. Mavis had been. At this period the girl’s silence struck me as still more conscious, partly perhaps because she deprecated her mother’s loquacity (she was enough of an ‘improvement’ to measure that) and partly because she was too full of pain at the idea of leaving her infirm, her perhaps dying father. I divined that they were poor and that she would take out a very small purse for her trousseau. Moreover for Mr. Porterfield to make up the sum his own case would have had to change. If he had enriched himself by the successful practice of his profession I had not encountered the buildings he had reared — his reputation had not come to my ears.

Mrs. Nettlepoint notified her new friends that she was a very inactive person at sea: she was prepared to suffer to the full with Miss Mavis, but she was not prepared to walk with her, to struggle with her, to accompany her to the table. To this the girl replied that she would trouble her little, she was sure: she had a belief that she should prove a wretched sailor and spend the voyage on her back. Her mother scoffed at this picture, prophesying perfect weather and a lovely time, and I said that if I might be trusted, as a tame old bachelor fairly sea-seasoned, I should be delighted to give the new member of our party an arm or any other countenance whenever she should require it. Both the ladies thanked me for this (taking my description only too literally), and the elder one declared that we were evidently going to be such a sociable group that it was too bad to have to stay at home. She inquired of Mrs. Nettlepoint if there were any one else — if she were to be accompanied by some of her family; and when our hostess mentioned her son — there was a chance of his embarking but (wasn’t it absurd?) he had not decided yet, she rejoined with extraordinary candour — ‘Oh dear, I do hope he’ll go: that would be so pleasant for Grace.’

Somehow the words made me think of poor Mr. Porterfield’s tartan, especially as Jasper Nettlepoint strolled in again at that moment. His mother instantly challenged him: it was ten o’clock; had he by chance made up his great mind? Apparently he failed to hear her, being in the first place surprised at the strange ladies and then struck with the fact that one of them was not strange. The young man, after a slight hesitation, greeted Miss Mavis with a handshake and an ‘Oh, good evening, how do you do?’ He did not utter her name, and I could see that he had forgotten it; but she immediately pronounced his, availing herself of an American girl’s discretion to introduce him to her mother.

‘Well, you might have told me you knew him all this time!’ Mrs. Mavis exclaimed. Then smiling at Mrs. Nettlepoint she added, ‘It would have saved me a worry, an acquaintance already begun.’

‘Ah, my son’s acquaintances ——!’ Mrs. Nettlepoint murmured.

‘Yes, and my daughter’s too!’ cried Mrs. Mavis, jovially. ‘Mrs. Allen didn’t tell us you were going,’ she continued, to the young man.

‘She would have been clever if she had been able to!’ Mrs. Nettlepoint ejaculated.

‘Dear mother, I have my telegram,’ Jasper remarked, looking at Grace Mavis.

‘I know you very little,’ the girl said, returning his observation.

‘I’ve danced with you at some ball — for some sufferers by something or other.’

‘I think it was an inundation,’ she replied, smiling. ‘But it was a long time ago — and I haven’t seen you since.’

‘I have been in far countries — to my loss. I should have said it was for a big fire.’

‘It was at the Horticultural Hall. I didn’t remember your name,’ said Grace Mavis.

‘That is very unkind of you, when I recall vividly that you had a pink dress.’

‘Oh, I remember that dress — you looked lovely in it!’ Mrs. Mavis broke out. ‘You must get another just like it — on the other side.’

‘Yes, your daughter looked charming in it,’ said Jasper Nettlepoint. Then he added, to the girl — ‘Yet you mentioned my name to your mother.’

‘It came back to me — seeing you here. I had no idea this was your home.’

‘Well, I confess it isn’t, much. Oh, there are some drinks!’ Jasper went on, approaching the tray and its glasses.

‘Indeed there are and quite delicious,’ Mrs. Mavis declared.

‘Won’t you have another then? — a pink one, like your daughter’s gown.’

‘With pleasure, sir. Oh, do see them over,’ Mrs. Mavis continued, accepting from the young man’s hand a third tumbler.

‘My mother and that gentleman? Surely they can take care of themselves,’ said Jasper Nettlepoint.

‘But my daughter — she has a claim as an old friend.’

‘Jasper, what does your telegram say?’ his mother interposed.

He gave no heed to her question: he stood there with his glass in his hand, looking from Mrs. Mavis to Miss Grace.

‘Ah, leave her to me, madam; I’m quite competent,’ I said to Mrs. Mavis.

Then the young man looked at me. The next minute he asked of the young lady — ‘Do you mean you are going to Europe?’

‘Yes, to-morrow; in the same ship as your mother.’

‘That’s what we’ve come here for, to see all about it,’ said Mrs. Mavis.

‘My son, take pity on me and tell me what light your telegram throws,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint went on.

‘I will, dearest, when I’ve quenched my thirst.’ And Jasper slowly drained his glass.

‘Well, you’re worse than Gracie,’ Mrs. Mavis commented. ‘She was first one thing and then the other — but only about up to three o’clock yesterday.’

‘Excuse me — won’t you take something?’ Jasper inquired of Gracie; who however declined, as if to make up for her mother’s copious consommation. I made privately the reflection that the two ladies ought to take leave, the question of Mrs. Nettlepoint’s goodwill being so satisfactorily settled and the meeting of the morrow at the ship so near at hand; and I went so far as to judge that their protracted stay, with their hostess visibly in a fidget, was a sign of a want of breeding. Miss Grace after all then was not such an improvement on her mother, for she easily might have taken the initiative of departure, in spite of Mrs. Mavis’s imbibing her glass of syrup in little interspaced sips, as if to make it last as long as possible. I watched the girl with an increasing curiosity; I could not help asking myself a question or two about her and even perceiving already (in a dim and general way) that there were some complications in her position. Was it not a complication that she should have wished to remain long enough to assuage a certain suspense, to learn whether or no Jasper were going to sail? Had not something particular passed between them on the occasion or at the period to which they had covertly alluded, and did she really not know that her mother was bringing her to his mother’s, though she apparently had thought it well not to mention the circumstance? Such things were complications on the part of a young lady betrothed to that curious cross-barred phantom of a Mr. Porterfield. But I am bound to add that she gave me no further warrant for suspecting them than by the simple fact of her encouraging her mother, by her immobility, to linger. Somehow I had a sense that she knew better. I got up myself to go, but Mrs. Nettlepoint detained me after seeing that my movement would not be taken as a hint, and I perceived she wished me not to leave my fellow-visitors on her hands. Jasper complained of the closeness of the room, said that it was not a night to sit in a room — one ought to be out in the air, under the sky. He denounced the windows that overlooked the water for not opening upon a balcony or a terrace, until his mother, whom he had not yet satisfied about his telegram, reminded him that there was a beautiful balcony in front, with room for a dozen people. She assured him we would go and sit there if it would please him.

‘It will be nice and cool to-morrow, when we steam into the great ocean,’ said Miss Mavis, expressing with more vivacity than she had yet thrown into any of her utterances my own thought of half an hour before. Mrs. Nettlepoint replied that it would probably be freezing cold, and her son murmured that he would go and try the drawing-room balcony and report upon it. Just as he was turning away he said, smiling, to Miss Mavis — ‘Won’t you come with me and see if it’s pleasant?’

‘Oh, well, we had better not stay all night!’ her mother exclaimed, but without moving. The girl moved, after a moment’s hesitation; she rose and accompanied Jasper into the other room. I observed that her slim tallness showed to advantage as she walked and that she looked well as she passed, with her head thrown back, into the darkness of the other part of the house. There was something rather marked, rather surprising (I scarcely knew why, for the act was simple enough) in her doing so, and perhaps it was our sense of this that held the rest of us somewhat stiffly silent as she remained away. I was waiting for Mrs. Mavis to go, so that I myself might go; and Mrs. Nettlepoint was waiting for her to go so that I might not. This doubtless made the young lady’s absence appear to us longer than it really was — it was probably very brief. Her mother moreover, I think, had a vague consciousness of embarrassment. Jasper Nettlepoint presently returned to the back drawing-room to get a glass of syrup for his companion, and he took occasion to remark that it was lovely on the balcony: one really got some air, the breeze was from that quarter. I remembered, as he went away with his tinkling tumbler, that from my hand, a few minutes before, Miss Mavis had not been willing to accept this innocent offering. A little later Mrs. Nettlepoint said — ‘Well, if it’s so pleasant there we had better go ourselves.’ So we passed to the front and in the other room met the two young people coming in from the balcony. I wondered in the light of subsequent events exactly how long they had been sitting there together. (There were three or four cane chairs which had been placed there for the summer.) If it had been but five minutes, that only made subsequent events more curious. ‘We must go, mother,’ Miss Mavis immediately said; and a moment later, with a little renewal of chatter as to our general meeting on the ship, the visitors had taken leave. Jasper went down with them to the door and as soon as they had gone out Mrs. Nettlepoint exclaimed — ‘Ah, but she’ll be a bore — she’ll be a bore!’

‘Not through talking too much — surely.’

‘An affectation of silence is as bad. I hate that particular pose; it’s coming up very much now; an imitation of the English, like everything else. A girl who tries to be statuesque at sea — that will act on one’s nerves!’

‘I don’t know what she tries to be, but she succeeds in being very handsome.’

‘So much the better for you. I’ll leave her to you, for I shall be shut up. I like her being placed under my “care.”’

‘She will be under Jasper’s,’ I remarked.

‘Ah, he won’t go — I want it too much.’

‘I have an idea he will go.’

‘Why didn’t he tell me so then — when he came in?’

‘He was diverted by Miss Mavis — a beautiful unexpected girl sitting there.’

‘Diverted from his mother — trembling for his decision?’

‘She’s an old friend; it was a meeting after a long separation.’

‘Yes, such a lot of them as he knows!’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

‘Such a lot of them?’

‘He has so many female friends — in the most varied circles.’

‘Well, we can close round her then — for I on my side knew, or used to know, her young man.’

‘Her young man?’

‘The fiancé, the intended, the one she is going out to. He can’t by the way be very young now.’

‘How odd it sounds!’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

I was going to reply that it was not odd if you knew Mr. Porterfield, but I reflected that that perhaps only made it odder. I told my companion briefly who he was — that I had met him in the old days in Paris, when I believed for a fleeting hour that I could learn to paint, when I lived with the jeunesse des écoles, and her comment on this was simply — ‘Well, he had better have come out for her!’

‘Perhaps so. She looked to me as she sat there as if she might change her mind at the last moment.’

‘About her marriage?’

‘About sailing. But she won’t change now.’

Jasper came back, and his mother instantly challenged him. ‘Well, are you going?’

‘Yes, I shall go,’ he said, smiling. ‘I have got my telegram.’

‘Oh, your telegram!’ I ventured to exclaim. ‘That charming girl is your telegram.’

He gave me a look, but in the dusk I could not make out very well what it conveyed. Then he bent over his mother, kissing her. ‘My news isn’t particularly satisfactory. I am going for you.’

‘Oh, you humbug!’ she rejoined. But of course she was delighted.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38