‘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, à 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 ça?’
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 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.
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