The Patagonia, by Henry James


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 protégée 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.’

‘Her chaperon?’

‘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.’

‘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.

‘Mr. Porterfield?’

‘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.’

‘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?’

‘Horrible, horrible!’

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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56