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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.
People usually spend the first hours of a voyage in squeezing themselves into their cabins, taking their little precautions, either so excessive or so inadequate, wondering how they can pass so many days in such a hole and asking idiotic questions of the stewards, who appear in comparison such men of the world. My own initiations were rapid, as became an old sailor, and so it seemed were Miss Mavis’s, for when I mounted to the deck at the end of half an hour I found her there alone, in the stern of the ship, looking back at the dwindling continent. It dwindled very fast for so big a place. I accosted her, having had no conversation with her amid the crowd of leave-takers and the muddle of farewells before we put off; we talked a little about the boat, our fellow-passengers and our prospects, and then I said — ‘I think you mentioned last night a name I know — that of Mr. Porterfield.’
‘Oh no, I never uttered it,’ she replied, smiling at me through her closely-drawn veil.
‘Then it was your mother.’
‘Very likely it was my mother.’ And she continued to smile, as if I ought to have known the difference.
‘I venture to allude to him because I have an idea I used to know him,’ I went on.
‘Oh, I see.’ Beyond this remark she manifested no interest in my having known him.
‘That is if it’s the same one.’ It seemed to me it would be silly to say nothing more; so I added ‘My Mr. Porterfield was called David.’
‘Well, so is ours.’ ‘Ours’ struck me as clever.
‘I suppose I shall see him again if he is to meet you at Liverpool,’ I continued.
‘Well, it will be bad if he doesn’t.’
It was too soon for me to have the idea that it would be bad if he did: that only came later. So I remarked that I had not seen him for so many years that it was very possible I should not know him.’
‘Well, I have not seen him for a great many years, but I expect I shall know him all the same.’
‘Oh, with you it’s different,’ I rejoined, smiling at her. ‘Hasn’t he been back since those days?’
‘I don’t know what days you mean.’
‘When I knew him in Paris — ages ago. He was a pupil of the École des Beaux Arts. He was studying architecture.’
‘Well, he is studying it still,’ said Grace Mavis.
‘Hasn’t he learned it yet?’
‘I don’t know what he has learned. I shall see.’ Then she added: ‘Architecture is very difficult and he is tremendously thorough.’
‘Oh, yes, I remember that. He was an admirable worker. But he must have become quite a foreigner, if it’s so many years since he has been at home.’
‘Oh, he is not changeable. If he were changeable —— ’ But here my interlocutress paused. I suspect she had been going to say that if he were changeable he would have given her up long ago. After an instant she went on: ‘He wouldn’t have stuck so to his profession. You can’t make much by it.’
‘You can’t make much?’
‘It doesn’t make you rich.’
‘Oh, of course you have got to practise it — and to practise it long.’
‘Yes — so Mr. Porterfield says.’
Something in the way she uttered these words made me laugh — they were so serene an implication that the gentleman in question did not live up to his principles. But I checked myself, asking my companion if she expected to remain in Europe long — to live there.
‘Well, it will be a good while if it takes me as long to come back as it has taken me to go out.’
‘And I think your mother said last night that it was your first visit.’
Miss Mavis looked at me a moment. ‘Didn’t mother talk!’
‘It was all very interesting.’
She continued to look at me. ‘You don’t think that.’
‘What have I to gain by saying it if I don’t?’
‘Oh, men have always something to gain.’
‘You make me feel a terrible failure, then! I hope at any rate that it gives you pleasure — the idea of seeing foreign lands.’
‘Mercy — I should think so.’
‘It’s a pity our ship is not one of the fast ones, if you are impatient.’
She was silent a moment; then she exclaimed, ‘Oh, I guess it will be fast enough!’
That evening I went in to see Mrs. Nettlepoint and sat on her sea-trunk, which was pulled out from under the berth to accommodate me. It was nine o’clock but not quite dark, as our northward course had already taken us into the latitude of the longer days. She had made her nest admirably and lay upon her sofa in a becoming dressing-gown and cap, resting from her labours. It was her regular practice to spend the voyage in her cabin, which smelt good (such was the refinement of her art), and she had a secret peculiar to herself for keeping her port open without shipping seas. She hated what she called the mess of the ship and the idea, if she should go above, of meeting stewards with plates of supererogatory food. She professed to be content with her situation (we promised to lend each other books and I assured her familiarly that I should be in and out of her room a dozen times a day), and pitied me for having to mingle in society. She judged this to be a limited privilege, for on the deck before we left the wharf she had taken a view of our fellow-passengers.
‘Oh, I’m an inveterate, almost a professional observer,’ I replied, ‘and with that vice I am as well occupied as an old woman in the sun with her knitting. It puts it in my power, in any situation, to see things. I shall see them even here and I shall come down very often and tell you about them. You are not interested to-day, but you will be to-morrow, for a ship is a great school of gossip. You won’t believe the number of researches and problems you will be engaged in by the middle of the voyage.’
‘I? Never in the world — lying here with my nose in a book and never seeing anything.’
‘You will participate at second hand. You will see through my eyes, hang upon my lips, take sides, feel passions, all sorts of sympathies and indignations. I have an idea that your young lady is the person on board who will interest me most.’
‘Mine, indeed! She has not been near me since we left the dock.’
‘Well, she is very curious.’
‘You have such cold-blooded terms,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint murmured. ‘Elle ne sait pas se conduire; she ought to have come to ask about me.’
‘Yes, since you are under her care,’ I said, smiling. ‘As for her not knowing how to behave — well, that’s exactly what we shall see.’
‘You will, but not I! I wash my hands of her.’
‘Don’t say that — don’t say that.’
Mrs. Nettlepoint looked at me a moment. ‘Why do you speak so solemnly?’
In return I considered her. ‘I will tell you before we land. And have you seen much of your son?’
‘Oh yes, he has come in several times. He seems very much pleased. He has got a cabin to himself.’
‘That’s great luck,’ I said, ‘but I have an idea he is always in luck. I was sure I should have to offer him the second berth in my room.’
‘And you wouldn’t have enjoyed that, because you don’t like him,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint took upon herself to say.
‘What put that into your head?’
‘It isn’t in my head — it’s in my heart, my coeur de mère. We guess those things. You think he’s selfish — I could see it last night.’
‘Dear lady,’ I said, ‘I have no general ideas about him at all. He is just one of the phenomena I am going to observe. He seems to me a very fine young man. However,’ I added, ‘since you have mentioned last night I will admit that I thought he rather tantalised you. He played with your suspense.’
‘Why, he came at the last just to please me,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
I was silent a moment. ‘Are you sure it was for your sake?’
‘Ah, perhaps it was for yours!’
‘When he went out on the balcony with that girl perhaps she asked him to come,’ I continued.
‘Perhaps she did. But why should he do everything she asks him?’
‘I don’t know yet, but perhaps I shall know later. Not that he will tell me — for he will never tell me anything: he is not one of those who tell.’
‘If she didn’t ask him, what you say is a great wrong to her,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
‘Yes, if she didn’t. But you say that to protect Jasper, not to protect her,’ I continued, smiling.
‘You are cold-blooded — it’s uncanny!’ my companion exclaimed.
‘Ah, this is nothing yet! Wait a while — you’ll see. At sea in general I’m awful — I pass the limits. If I have outraged her in thought I will jump overboard. There are ways of asking (a man doesn’t need to tell a woman that) without the crude words.’
‘I don’t know what you suppose between them,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
‘Nothing but what was visible on the surface. It transpired, as the newspapers say, that they were old friends.’
‘He met her at some promiscuous party — I asked him about it afterwards. She is not a person he could ever think of seriously.’
‘That’s exactly what I believe.’
‘You don’t observe — you imagine,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint pursued.’ How do you reconcile her laying a trap for Jasper with her going out to Liverpool on an errand of love?’
‘I don’t for an instant suppose she laid a trap; I believe she acted on the impulse of the moment. She is going out to Liverpool on an errand of marriage; that is not necessarily the same thing as an errand of love, especially for one who happens to have had a personal impression of the gentleman she is engaged to.’
‘Well, there are certain decencies which in such a situation the most abandoned of her sex would still observe. You apparently judge her capable — on no evidence — of violating them.’
‘Ah, you don’t understand the shades of things,’ I rejoined. ‘Decencies and violations — there is no need for such heavy artillery! I can perfectly imagine that without the least immodesty she should have said to Jasper on the balcony, in fact if not in words — “I’m in dreadful spirits, but if you come I shall feel better, and that will be pleasant for you too.”’
‘And why is she in dreadful spirits?’
‘She isn’t!’ I replied, laughing.
‘What is she doing?’
‘She is walking with your son.’
Mrs. Nettlepoint said nothing for a moment; then she broke out, inconsequently — ‘Ah, she’s horrid!’
‘No, she’s charming!’ I protested.
‘You mean she’s “curious”?’
‘Well, for me it’s the same thing!’
This led my friend of course to declare once more that I was cold-blooded. On the afternoon of the morrow we had another talk, and she told me that in the morning Miss Mavis had paid her a long visit. She knew nothing about anything, but her intentions were good and she was evidently in her own eyes conscientious and decorous. And Mrs. Nettlepoint concluded these remarks with the exclamation ‘Poor young thing!’
‘You think she is a good deal to be pitied, then?’
‘Well, her story sounds dreary — she told me a great deal of it. She fell to talking little by little and went from one thing to another. She’s in that situation when a girl must open herself — to some woman.’
‘Hasn’t she got Jasper?’ I inquired.
‘He isn’t a woman. You strike me as jealous of him,’ my companion added.
‘I daresay he thinks so — or will before the end. Ah no — ah no!’ And I asked Mrs. Nettlepoint if our young lady struck her as a flirt. She gave me no answer, but went on to remark that it was odd and interesting to her to see the way a girl like Grace Mavis resembled the girls of the kind she herself knew better, the girls of ‘society,’ at the same time that she differed from them; and the way the differences and resemblances were mixed up, so that on certain questions you couldn’t tell where you would find her. You would think she would feel as you did because you had found her feeling so, and then suddenly, in regard to some other matter (which was yet quite the same) she would be terribly wanting. Mrs. Nettlepoint proceeded to observe (to such idle speculations does the vanity of a sea-voyage give encouragement) that she wondered whether it were better to be an ordinary girl very well brought up or an extraordinary girl not brought up at all.
‘Oh, I go in for the extraordinary girl under all circumstances.’
‘It is true that if you are very well brought up you are not ordinary,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint, smelling her strong salts. ‘You are a lady, at any rate. C’est toujours ça.’
‘And Miss Mavis isn’t one — is that what you mean?’
‘Well — you have seen her mother.’
‘Yes, but I think your contention would be that among such people the mother doesn’t count.’
‘Precisely; and that’s bad.’
‘I see what you mean. But isn’t it rather hard? If your mother doesn’t know anything it is better you should be independent of her, and yet if you are that constitutes a bad note.’ I added that Mrs. Mavis had appeared to count sufficiently two nights before. She had said and done everything she wanted, while the girl sat silent and respectful. Grace’s attitude (so far as her mother was concerned) had been eminently decent.
‘Yes, but she couldn’t bear it,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
‘Ah, if you know it I may confess that she has told me as much.’
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. ‘Told you? There’s one of the things they do!’
‘Well, it was only a word. Won’t you let me know whether you think she’s a flirt?’
‘Find out for yourself, since you pretend to study folks.’
‘Oh, your judgment would probably not at all determine mine. It’s in regard to yourself that I ask it.’
‘In regard to myself?’
‘To see the length of maternal immorality.’
Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to repeat my words. ‘Maternal immorality?’
‘You desire your son to have every possible distraction on his voyage, and if you can make up your mind in the sense I refer to that will make it all right. He will have no responsibility.’
‘Heavens, how you analyse! I haven’t in the least your passion for making up my mind.’
‘Then if you chance it you’ll be more immoral still.’
‘Your reasoning is strange,’ said the poor lady; ‘when it was you who tried to put it into my head yesterday that she had asked him to come.’
‘Yes, but in good faith.’
‘How do you mean in good faith?’
‘Why, as girls of that sort do. Their allowance and measure in such matters is much larger than that of young ladies who have been, as you say, very well brought up; and yet I am not sure that on the whole I don’t think them the more innocent. Miss Mavis is engaged, and she’s to be married next week, but it’s an old, old story, and there’s no more romance in it than if she were going to be photographed. So her usual life goes on, and her usual life consists (and that of ces demoiselles in general) in having plenty of gentlemen’s society. Having it I mean without having any harm from it.’
‘Well, if there is no harm from it what are you talking about and why am I immoral?’
I hesitated, laughing. ‘I retract — you are sane and clear. I am sure she thinks there won’t be any harm,’ I added. ‘That’s the great point.’
‘The great point?’
‘I mean, to be settled.’
‘Mercy, we are not trying them! How can we settle it?’
‘I mean of course in our minds. There will be nothing more interesting for the next ten days for our minds to exercise themselves upon.’
‘They will get very tired of it,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
‘No, no, because the interest will increase and the plot will thicken. It can’t help it.’ She looked at me as if she thought me slightly Mephistophelean, and I went on — ‘So she told you everything in her life was dreary?’
‘Not everything but most things. And she didn’t tell me so much as I guessed it. She’ll tell me more the next time. She will behave properly now about coming in to see me; I told her she ought to.’
‘I am glad of that,’ I said. ‘Keep her with you as much as possible.’
‘I don’t follow you much,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint replied, ‘but so far as I do I don’t think your remarks are in very good taste.’
‘I’m too excited, I lose my head, cold-blooded as you think me. Doesn’t she like Mr. Porterfield?’
‘Yes, that’s the worst of it.’
‘The worst of it?’
‘He’s so good — there’s no fault to be found with him. Otherwise she would have thrown it all up. It has dragged on since she was eighteen: she became engaged to him before he went abroad to study. It was one of those childish muddles which parents in America might prevent so much more than they do. The thing is to insist on one’s daughter’s waiting, on the engagement’s being long; and then after you have got that started to take it on every occasion as little seriously as possible — to make it die out. You can easily tire it out. However, Mr. Porterfield has taken it seriously for some years. He has done his part to keep it alive. She says he adores her.’
‘His part? Surely his part would have been to marry her by this time.’
‘He has absolutely no money.’
‘He ought to have got some, in seven years.’
‘So I think she thinks. There are some sorts of poverty that are contemptible. But he has a little more now. That’s why he won’t wait any longer. His mother has come out, she has something — a little — and she is able to help him. She will live with them and bear some of the expenses, and after her death the son will have what there is.’
‘How old is she?’ I asked, cynically.
‘I haven’t the least idea. But it doesn’t sound very inspiring. He has not been to America since he first went out.’
‘That’s an odd way of adoring her.’
‘I made that objection mentally, but I didn’t express it to her. She met it indeed a little by telling me that he had had other chances to marry.’
‘That surprises me,’ I remarked. ‘And did she say that she had had?’
‘No, and that’s one of the things I thought nice in her; for she must have had. She didn’t try to make out that he had spoiled her life. She has three other sisters and there is very little money at home. She has tried to make money; she has written little things and painted little things, but her talent is apparently not in that direction. Her father has had a long illness and has lost his place — he was in receipt of a salary in connection with some waterworks — and one of her sisters has lately become a widow, with children and without means. And so as in fact she never has married any one else, whatever opportunities she may have encountered, she appears to have just made up her mind to go out to Mr. Porterfield as the least of her evils. But it isn’t very amusing.’
‘That only makes it the more honourable. She will go through with it, whatever it costs, rather than disappoint him after he has waited so long. It is true,’ I continued, ‘that when a woman acts from a sense of honour —— ’
‘Well, when she does?’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint, for I hesitated perceptibly.
‘It is so extravagant a course that some one has to pay for it.’
‘You are very impertinent. We all have to pay for each other, all the while; and for each other’s virtues as well as vices.’
‘That’s precisely why I shall be sorry for Mr. Porterfield when she steps off the ship with her little bill. I mean with her teeth clenched.’
‘Her teeth are not in the least clenched. She is in perfect good-humour.’
‘Well, we must try and keep her so,’ I said. ‘You must take care that Jasper neglects nothing.’
I know not what reflection this innocent pleasantry of mine provoked on the good lady’s part; the upshot of them at all events was to make her say — ‘Well, I never asked her to come; I’m very glad of that. It is all their own doing.’
‘Their own — you mean Jasper’s and hers?’
‘No indeed. I mean her mother’s and Mrs. Allen’s; the girl’s too of course. They put themselves upon us.’
‘Oh yes, I can testify to that. Therefore I’m glad too. We should have missed it, I think.’
‘How seriously you take it!’ Mrs. Nettlepoint exclaimed.
‘Ah, wait a few days!’ I replied, getting up to leave her.
The Patagonia was slow, but she was spacious and comfortable, and there was a kind of motherly decency in her long, nursing rock and her rustling, old-fashioned gait. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. We were not numerous enough to squeeze each other and yet we were not too few to entertain — with that familiarity and relief which figures and objects acquire on the great bare field of the ocean, beneath the great bright glass of the sky. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I had never liked it at all; but now I had a revelation of how, in a midsummer mood, it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet — save for the great regular swell of its heart-beats, the pulse of its life, and there grew to be something so agreeable in the sense of floating there in infinite isolation and leisure that it was a positive satisfaction the Patagonia was not a racer. One had never thought of the sea as the great place of safety, but now it came over one that there is no place so safe from the land. When it does not give you trouble it takes it away — takes away letters and telegrams and newspapers and visits and duties and efforts, all the complications, all the superfluities and superstitions that we have stuffed into our terrene life. The simple absence of the post, when the particular conditions enable you to enjoy the great fact by which it is produced, becomes in itself a kind of bliss, and the clean stage of the deck shows you a play that amuses, the personal drama of the voyage, the movement and interaction, in the strong sea-light, of figures that end by representing something — something moreover of which the interest is never, even in its keenness, too great to suffer you to go to sleep. I, at any rate, dozed a great deal, lying on my rug with a French novel, and when I opened my eyes I generally saw Jasper Nettlepoint passing with his mother’s 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.’
‘Mrs. Nettlepoint — the lady under whose protection she is.’
‘Protection?’ Mrs. Peck stared at me a moment, moving some valued morsel in her mouth; then she exclaimed, familiarly, ‘Pshaw!’ I was struck with this and I was on the point of asking her what she meant by it when she continued: ‘Are we not going to see Mrs. Nettlepoint?’
‘I am afraid not. She vows that she won’t stir from her sofa.’
‘Pshaw!’ said Mrs. Peck again. ‘That’s quite a disappointment.’
‘Do you know her then?’
‘No, but I know all about her.’ Then my companion added — ‘You don’t meant to say she’s any relation?’
‘Do you mean to me?’
‘No, to Grace Mavis.’
‘None at all. They are very new friends, as I happen to know. Then you are acquainted with our young lady?’ I had not noticed that any recognition passed between them at luncheon.
‘Is she yours too?’ asked Mrs. Peck, smiling at me.
‘Ah, when people are in the same boat — literally — they belong a little to each other.’
‘That’s so,’ said Mrs. Peck. ‘I don’t know Miss Mavis but I know all about her — I live opposite to her on Merrimac Avenue. I don’t know whether you know that part.’
‘Oh yes — it’s very beautiful.’
The consequence of this remark was another ‘Pshaw!’ But Mrs. Peck went on — ‘When you’ve lived opposite to people like that for a long time you feel as if you were acquainted. But she didn’t take it up to-day; she didn’t speak to me. She knows who I am as well as she knows her own mother.’
‘You had better speak to her first — she’s shy,’ I remarked.
‘Shy? Why she’s nearly thirty years old. I suppose you know where she’s going.’
‘Oh yes — we all take an interest in that.’
‘That young man, I suppose, particularly.’
‘That young man?’
‘The handsome one, who sits there. Didn’t you tell me he is Mrs. Nettlepoint’s son?’
‘Oh yes; he acts as her deputy. No doubt he does all he can to carry out her function.’
Mrs. Peck was silent a moment. I had spoken jocosely, but she received my pleasantry with a serious face. ‘Well, she might let him eat his dinner in peace!’ she presently exclaimed.
‘Oh, he’ll come back!’ I said, glancing at his place. The repast continued and when it was finished I screwed my chair round to leave the table. Mrs. Peck performed the same movement and we quitted the saloon together. Outside of it was a kind of vestibule, with several seats, from which you could descend to the lower cabins or mount to the promenade-deck. Mrs. Peck appeared to hesitate as to her course and then solved the problem by going neither way. She dropped upon one of the benches and looked up at me.
‘I thought you said he would come back.’
‘Young Nettlepoint? I see he didn’t. Miss Mavis then has given him half of her dinner.’
‘It’s very kind of her! She has been engaged for ages.’
‘Yes, but that will soon be over.’
‘So I suppose — as quick as we land. Every one knows it on Merrimac Avenue. Every one there takes a great interest in it.’
‘Ah, of course, a girl like that: she has many friends.’
‘I mean even people who don’t know her.’
‘I see,’ I went on: ‘she is so handsome that she attracts attention, people enter into her affairs.’
‘She used to be pretty, but I can’t say I think she’s anything remarkable to-day. Anyhow, if she attracts attention she ought to be all the more careful what she does. You had better tell her that.’
‘Oh, it’s none of my business!’ I replied, leaving Mrs. Peck and going above. The exclamation, I confess, was not perfectly in accordance with my feeling, or rather my feeling was not perfectly in harmony with the exclamation. The very first thing I did on reaching the deck was to notice that Miss Mavis was pacing it on Jasper Nettlepoint’s arm and that whatever beauty she might have lost, according to Mrs. Peck’s insinuation, she still kept enough to make one’s eyes follow her. She had put on a sort of crimson hood, which was very becoming to her and which she wore for the rest of the voyage. She walked very well, with long steps, and I remember that at this moment the ocean had a gentle evening swell which made the great ship dip slowly, rhythmically, giving a movement that was graceful to graceful pedestrians and a more awkward one to the awkward. It was the loveliest hour of a fine day, the clear early evening, with the glow of the sunset in the air and a purple colour in the sea. I always thought that the waters ploughed by the Homeric heroes must have looked like that. I perceived on that particular occasion moreover that Grace Mavis would for the rest of the voyage be the most visible thing on the ship; the figure that would count most in the composition of groups. She couldn’t help it, poor girl; nature had made her conspicuous — important, as the painters say. She paid for it by the exposure it brought with it — the danger that people would, as I had said to Mrs. Peck, enter into her affairs.
Jasper Nettlepoint went down at certain times to see his mother, and I watched for one of these occasions (on the third day out) and took advantage of it to go and sit by Miss Mavis. She wore a blue veil drawn tightly over her face, so that if the smile with which she greeted me was dim I could account for it partly by that.
‘Well, we are getting on — we are getting on,’ I said, cheerfully, looking at the friendly, twinkling sea.
‘Are we going very fast?’
‘Not fast, but steadily. Ohne Hast, ohne Rast — do you know German?’
‘Well, I’ve studied it — some.’
‘It will be useful to you over there when you travel.’
‘Well yes, if we do. But I don’t suppose we shall much. Mr. Nettlepoint says we ought,’ my interlocutress added in a moment.
‘Ah, of course he thinks so. He has been all over the world.’
‘Yes, he has described some of the places. That’s what I should like. I didn’t know I should like it so much.’
‘Like what so much?’
‘Going on this way. I could go on for ever, for ever and ever.’
‘Ah, you know it’s not always like this,’ I rejoined.
‘Well, it’s better than Boston.’
‘It isn’t so good as Paris,’ I said, smiling.
‘Oh, I know all about Paris. There is no freshness in that. I feel as if I had been there.’
‘You mean you have heard so much about it?’
‘Oh yes, nothing else for ten years.’
I had come to talk with Miss Mavis because she was attractive, but I had been rather conscious of the absence of a good topic, not feeling at liberty to revert to Mr. Porterfield. She had not encouraged me, when I spoke to her as we were leaving Boston, to go on with the history of my acquaintance with this gentleman; and yet now, unexpectedly, she appeared to imply (it was doubtless one of the disparities mentioned by Mrs. Nettlepoint) that he might be glanced at without indelicacy.
‘I see, you mean by letters,’ I remarked.
‘I shan’t live in a good part. I know enough to know that,’ she went on.
‘Dear young lady, there are no bad parts,’ I answered, reassuringly.
‘Why, Mr. Nettlepoint says it’s horrid.’
‘Up there in the Batignolles. It’s worse than Merrimac Avenue.’
‘Worse — in what way?’
‘Why, even less where the nice people live.’
‘He oughtn’t to say that,’ I returned. ‘Don’t you call Mr. Porterfield a nice person?’ I ventured to subjoin.
‘Oh, it doesn’t make any difference.’ She rested her eyes on me a moment through her veil, the texture of which gave them a suffused prettiness. ‘Do you know him very well?’ she asked.
‘No, Mr. Nettlepoint.’
‘Ah, very little. He’s a good deal younger than I.’
She was silent a moment; after which she said: ‘He’s younger than me, too.’ I know not what drollery there was in this but it was unexpected and it made me laugh. Neither do I know whether Miss Mavis took offence at my laughter, though I remember thinking at the moment with compunction that it had brought a certain colour to her cheek. At all events she got up, gathering her shawl and her books into her arm. ‘I’m going down — I’m tired.’
‘Tired of me, I’m afraid.’
‘No, not yet.’
‘I’m like you,’ I pursued. ‘I should like it to go on and on.’
She had begun to walk along the deck to the companion-way and I went with her. ‘Oh, no, I shouldn’t, after all!’
I had taken her shawl from her to carry it, but at the top of the steps that led down to the cabins I had to give it back. ‘Your mother would be glad if she could know,’ I observed as we parted.
‘If she could know?’
‘How well you are getting on. And that good Mrs. Allen.’
‘Oh, mother, mother! She made me come, she pushed me off.’ And almost as if not to say more she went quickly below.
I paid Mrs. Nettlepoint a morning visit after luncheon and another in the evening, before she ‘turned in.’ That same day, in the evening, she said to me suddenly, ‘Do you know what I have done? I have asked Jasper.’
‘Asked him what?’
‘Why, if she asked him, you know.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You do perfectly. If that girl really asked him — on the balcony — to sail with us.’
‘My dear friend, do you suppose that if she did he would tell you?’
‘That’s just what he says. But he says she didn’t.’
‘And do you consider the statement valuable?’ I asked, laughing out. ‘You had better ask Miss Gracie herself.’
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. ‘I couldn’t do that.’
‘Incomparable friend, I am only joking. What does it signify now?’
‘I thought you thought everything signified. You were so full of signification!’
‘Yes, but we are farther out now, and somehow in mid-ocean everything becomes absolute.’
‘What else can he do with decency?’ Mrs. Nettlepoint went on. ‘If, as my son, he were never to speak to her it would be very rude and you would think that stranger still. Then you would do what he does, and where would be the difference?’
‘How do you know what he does? I haven’t mentioned him for twenty-four hours.’
‘Why, she told me herself: she came in this afternoon.’
‘What an odd thing to tell you!’ I exclaimed.
‘Not as she says it. She says he’s full of attention, perfectly devoted — looks after her all the while. She seems to want me to know it, so that I may commend him for it.’
‘That’s charming; it shows her good conscience.’
‘Yes, or her great cleverness.’
Something in the tone in which Mrs. Nettlepoint said this caused me to exclaim in real surprise, ‘Why, what do you suppose she has in her mind?’
‘To get hold of him, to make him go so far that he can’t retreat, to marry him, perhaps.’
‘To marry him? And what will she do with Mr. Porterfield?’
‘She’ll ask me just to explain to him — or perhaps you.’
‘Yes, as an old friend!’ I replied, laughing. But I asked more seriously, ‘Do you see Jasper caught like that?’
‘Well, he’s only a boy — he’s younger at least than she.’
‘Precisely; she regards him as a child.’
‘As a child?’
‘She remarked to me herself to-day that he is so much younger.’
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. ‘Does she talk of it with you? That shows she has a plan, that she has thought it over!’
I have sufficiently betrayed that I deemed Grace Mavis a singular girl, but I was far from judging her capable of laying a trap for our young companion. Moreover my reading of Jasper was not in the least that he was catchable — could be made to do a thing if he didn’t want to do it. Of course it was not impossible that he might be inclined, that he might take it (or already have taken it) into his head to marry Miss Mavis; but to believe this I should require still more proof than his always being with her. He wanted at most to marry her for the voyage. ‘If you have questioned him perhaps you have tried to make him feel responsible,’ I said to his mother.
‘A little, but it’s very difficult. Interference makes him perverse. One has to go gently. Besides, it’s too absurd — think of her age. If she can’t take care of herself!’ cried Mrs. Nettlepoint.
‘Yes, let us keep thinking of her age, though it’s not so prodigious. And if things get very bad you have one resource left,’ I added.
‘What is that?’
‘You can go upstairs.’
‘Ah, never, never! If it takes that to save her she must be lost. Besides, what good would it do? If I were to go up she could come down here.’
‘Yes, but you could keep Jasper with you.’
‘Could I?’ Mrs. Nettlepoint demanded, in the manner of a woman who knew her son.
In the saloon the next day, after dinner, over the red cloth of the tables, beneath the swinging lamps and the racks of tumblers, decanters and wine-glasses, we sat down to whist, Mrs. Peck, among others, taking a hand in the game. She played very badly and talked too much, and when the rubber was over assuaged her discomfiture (though not mine — we had been partners) with a Welsh rabbit and a tumbler of something hot. We had done with the cards, but while she waited for this refreshment she sat with her elbows on the table shuffling a pack.
‘She hasn’t spoken to me yet — she won’t do it,’ she remarked in a moment.
‘Is it possible there is any one on the ship who hasn’t spoken to you?’
‘Not that girl — she knows too well!’ Mrs. Peck looked round our little circle with a smile of intelligence — she had familiar, communicative eyes. Several of our company had assembled, according to the wont, the last thing in the evening, of those who are cheerful at sea, for the consumption of grilled sardines and devilled bones.
‘What then does she know?’
‘Oh, she knows that I know.’
‘Well, we know what Mrs. Peck knows,’ one of the ladies of the group observed to me, with an air of privilege.
‘Well, you wouldn’t know if I hadn’t told you — from the way she acts,’ said Mrs. Peck, with a small laugh.
‘She is going out to a gentleman who lives over there — he’s waiting there to marry her,’ the other lady went on, in the tone of authentic information. I remember that her name was Mrs. Gotch and that her mouth looked always as if she were whistling.
‘Oh, he knows — I’ve told him,’ said Mrs. Peck.
‘Well, I presume every one knows,’ Mrs. Gotch reflected.
‘Dear madam, is it every one’s business?’ I asked.
‘Why, don’t you think it’s a peculiar way to act?’ Mrs. Gotch was evidently surprised at my little protest.
‘Why, it’s right there — straight in front of you, like a play at the theatre — as if you had paid to see it,’ said Mrs. Peck. ‘If you don’t call it public ——!’
‘Aren’t you mixing things up? What do you call public?’
‘Why, the way they go on. They are up there now.’
‘They cuddle up there half the night,’ said Mrs. Gotch. ‘I don’t know when they come down. Any hour you like — when all the lights are out they are up there still.’
‘Oh, you can’t tire them out. They don’t want relief — like the watch!’ laughed one of the gentlemen.
‘Well, if they enjoy each other’s society what’s the harm?’ another asked. ‘They’d do just the same on land.’
‘They wouldn’t do it on the public streets, I suppose,’ said Mrs. Peck. ‘And they wouldn’t do it if Mr. Porterfield was round!’
‘Isn’t that just where your confusion comes in?’ I inquired. ‘It’s public enough that Miss Mavis and Mr. Nettlepoint are always together, but it isn’t in the least public that she is going to be married.’
‘Why, how can you say — when the very sailors know it! The captain knows it and all the officers know it; they see them there — especially at night, when they’re sailing the ship.’
‘I thought there was some rule —— ’ said Mrs. Gotch.
‘Well, there is — that you’ve got to behave yourself,’ Mrs. Peck rejoined. ‘So the captain told me — he said they have some rule. He said they have to have, when people are too demonstrative.’
‘When they attract so much attention.’
‘Ah, it’s we who attract the attention — by talking about what doesn’t concern us and about what we really don’t know,’ I ventured to declare.
‘She said the captain said he would tell on her as soon as we arrive,’ Mrs. Gotch interposed.
‘She said ——?’ I repeated, bewildered.
‘Well, he did say so, that he would think it his duty to inform Mr. Porterfield, when he comes on to meet her — if they keep it up in the same way,’ said Mrs. Peck.
‘Oh, they’ll keep it up, don’t you fear!’ one of the gentlemen exclaimed.
‘Dear madam, the captain is laughing at you.’
‘No, he ain’t — he’s right down scandalised. He says he regards us all as a real family and wants the family to be properly behaved.’ I could see Mrs. Peck was irritated by my controversial tone: she challenged me with considerable spirit. ‘How can you say I don’t know it when all the street knows it and has known it for years — for years and years?’ She spoke as if the girl had been engaged at least for twenty. ‘What is she going out for, if not to marry him?’
‘Perhaps she is going to see how he looks,’ suggested one of the gentlemen.
‘He’d look queer — if he knew.’
‘Well, I guess he’ll know,’ said Mrs. Gotch.
‘She’d tell him herself — she wouldn’t be afraid,’ the gentleman went on.
‘Well, she might as well kill him. He’ll jump overboard.’
‘Jump overboard?’ cried Mrs. Gotch, as if she hoped then that Mr. Porterfield would be told.
‘He has just been waiting for this — for years,’ said Mrs. Peck.
‘Do you happen to know him?’ I inquired.
Mrs. Peck hesitated a moment. ‘No, but I know a lady who does. Are you going up?’
I had risen from my place — I had not ordered supper. ‘I’m going to take a turn before going to bed.’
‘Well then, you’ll see!’
Outside the saloon I hesitated, for Mrs. Peck’s admonition made me feel for a moment that if I ascended to the deck I should have entered in a manner into her little conspiracy. But the night was so warm and splendid that I had been intending to smoke a cigar in the air before going below, and I did not see why I should deprive myself of this pleasure in order to seem not to mind Mrs. Peck. I went up and saw a few figures sitting or moving about in the darkness. The ocean looked black and small, as it is apt to do at night, and the long mass of the ship, with its vague dim wings, seemed to take up a great part of it. There were more stars than one saw on land and the heavens struck one more than ever as larger than the earth. Grace Mavis and her companion were not, so far as I perceived at first, among the few passengers who were lingering late, and I was glad, because I hated to hear her talked about in the manner of the gossips I had left at supper. I wished there had been some way to prevent it, but I could think of no way but to recommend her privately to change her habits. That would be a very delicate business, and perhaps it would be better to begin with Jasper, though that would be delicate too. At any rate one might let him know, in a friendly spirit, to how much remark he exposed the young lady — leaving this revelation to work its way upon him. Unfortunately I could not altogether believe that the pair were unconscious of the observation and the opinion of the passengers. They were not a boy and a girl; they had a certain social perspective in their eye. I was not very clear as to the details of that behaviour which had made them (according to the version of my good friends in the saloon) a scandal to the ship, for though I looked at them a good deal I evidently had not looked at them so continuously and so hungrily as Mrs. Peck. Nevertheless the probability was that they knew what was thought of them — what naturally would be — and simply didn’t care. That made Miss Mavis out rather cynical and even a little immodest; and yet, somehow, if she had such qualities I did not dislike her for them. I don’t know what strange, secret excuses I found for her. I presently indeed encountered a need for them on the spot, for just as I was on the point of going below again, after several restless turns and (within the limit where smoking was allowed) as many puffs at a cigar as I cared for, I became aware that a couple of figures were seated behind one of the lifeboats that rested on the deck. They were so placed as to be visible only to a person going close to the rail and peering a little sidewise. I don’t think I peered, but as I stood a moment beside the rail my eye was attracted by a dusky object which protruded beyond the boat and which, as I saw at a second glance, was the tail of a lady’s dress. I bent forward an instant, but even then I saw very little more; that scarcely mattered, however, for I took for granted on the spot that the persons concealed in so snug a corner were Jasper Nettlepoint and Mr. Porterfield’s intended. Concealed was the word, and I thought it a real pity; there was bad taste in it. I immediately turned away and the next moment I found myself face to face with the captain of the ship. I had already had some conversation with him (he had been so good as to invite me, as he had invited Mrs. Nettlepoint and her son and the young lady travelling with them, and also Mrs. Peck, to sit at his table) and had observed with pleasure that he had the art, not universal on the Atlantic liners, of mingling urbanity with seamanship.
‘They don’t waste much time — your friends in there,’ he said, nodding in the direction in which he had seen me looking.
‘Ah well, they haven’t much to lose.’
‘That’s what I mean. I’m told she hasn’t.’
I wanted to say something exculpatory but I scarcely knew what note to strike. I could only look vaguely about me at the starry darkness and the sea that seemed to sleep. ‘Well, with these splendid nights, this perfection of weather, people are beguiled into late hours.’
‘Yes. We want a nice little blow,’ the captain said.
‘A nice little blow?’
‘That would clear the decks!’
The captain was rather dry and he went about his business. He had made me uneasy and instead of going below I walked a few steps more. The other walkers dropped off pair by pair (they were all men) till at last I was alone. Then, after a little, I quitted the field. Jasper and his companion were still behind their lifeboat. Personally I greatly preferred good weather, but as I went down I found myself vaguely wishing, in the interest of I scarcely knew what, unless of decorum, that we might have half a gale.
Miss Mavis turned out, in sea-phrase, early; for the next morning I saw her come up only a little while after I had finished my breakfast, a ceremony over which I contrived not to dawdle. She was alone and Jasper Nettlepoint, by a rare accident, was not on deck to help her. I went to meet her (she was encumbered as usual with her shawl, her sun-umbrella and a book) and laid my hands on her chair, placing it near the stern of the ship, where she liked best to be. But I proposed to her to walk a little before she sat down and she took my arm after I had put her accessories into the chair. The deck was clear at that hour and the morning light was gay; one got a sort of exhilarated impression of fair conditions and an absence of hindrance. I forget what we spoke of first, but it was because I felt these things pleasantly, and not to torment my companion nor to test her, that I could not help exclaiming cheerfully, after a moment, as I have mentioned having done the first day, ‘Well, we are getting on, we are getting on!’
‘Oh yes, I count every hour.’
‘The last days always go quicker,’ I said, ‘and the last hours —— ’
‘Well, the last hours?’ she asked; for I had instinctively checked myself.
‘Oh, one is so glad then that it is almost the same as if one had arrived. But we ought to be grateful when the elements have been so kind to us,’ I added. ‘I hope you will have enjoyed the voyage.’
She hesitated a moment, then she said, ‘Yes, much more than I expected.’
‘Did you think it would be very bad?’
The tone of these words was strange but I had not much time to reflect upon it, for turning round at that moment I saw Jasper Nettlepoint come towards us. He was separated from us by the expanse of the white deck and I could not help looking at him from head to foot as he drew nearer. I know not what rendered me on this occasion particularly sensitive to the impression, but it seemed to me that I saw him as I had never seen him before — saw him inside and out, in the intense sea-light, in his personal, his moral totality. It was a quick, vivid revelation; if it only lasted a moment it had a simplifying, certifying effect. He was intrinsically a pleasing apparition, with his handsome young face and a certain absence of compromise in his personal arrangements which, more than any one I have ever seen, he managed to exhibit on shipboard. He had none of the appearance of wearing out old clothes that usually prevails there, but dressed straight, as I heard some one say. This gave him a practical, successful air, as of a young man who would come best out of any predicament. I expected to feel my companion’s hand loosen itself on my arm, as indication that now she must go to him, and was almost surprised she did not drop me. We stopped as we met and Jasper bade us a friendly good-morning. Of course the remark was not slow to be made that we had another lovely day, which led him to exclaim, in the manner of one to whom criticism came easily, ‘Yes, but with this sort of thing consider what one of the others would do!’
‘One of the other ships?’
‘We should be there now, or at any rate to-morrow.’
‘Well then, I’m glad it isn’t one of the others,’ I said, smiling at the young lady on my arm. My remark offered her a chance to say something appreciative and gave him one even more; but neither Jasper nor Grace Mavis took advantage of the opportunity. What they did do, I perceived, was to look at each other for an instant; after which Miss Mavis turned her eyes silently to the sea. She made no movement and uttered no word, contriving to give me the sense that she had all at once become perfectly passive, that she somehow declined responsibility. We remained standing there with Jasper in front of us, and if the touch of her arm did not suggest that I should give her up, neither did it intimate that we had better pass on. I had no idea of giving her up, albeit one of the things that I seemed to discover just then in Jasper’s physiognomy was an imperturbable implication that she was his property. His eye met mine for a moment, and it was exactly as if he had said to me, ‘I know what you think, but I don’t care a rap.’ What I really thought was that he was selfish beyond the limits: that was the substance of my little revelation. Youth is almost always selfish, just as it is almost always conceited, and, after all, when it is combined with health and good parts, good looks and good spirits, it has a right to be, and I easily forgive it if it be really youth. Still it is a question of degree, and what stuck out of Jasper Nettlepoint (if one felt that sort of thing) was that his egotism had a hardness, his love of his own way an avidity. These elements were jaunty and prosperous, they were accustomed to triumph. He was fond, very fond, of women; they were necessary to him and that was in his type; but he was not in the least in love with Grace Mavis. Among the reflections I quickly made this was the one that was most to the point. There was a degree of awkwardness, after a minute, in the way we were planted there, though the apprehension of it was doubtless not in the least with him.
‘How is your mother this morning?’ I asked.
‘You had better go down and see.’
‘Not till Miss Mavis is tired of me.’
She said nothing to this and I made her walk again. For some minutes she remained silent; then, rather unexpectedly, she began: ‘I’ve seen you talking to that lady who sits at our table — the one who has so many children.’
‘Mrs. Peck? Oh yes, I have talked with her.’
‘Do you know her very well?’
‘Only as one knows people at sea. An acquaintance makes itself. It doesn’t mean very much.’
‘She doesn’t speak to me — she might if she wanted.’
‘That’s just what she says of you — that you might speak to her.’
‘Oh, if she’s waiting for that ——!’ said my companion, with a laugh. Then she added — ‘She lives in our street, nearly opposite.’
‘Precisely. That’s the reason why she thinks you might speak; she has seen you so often and seems to know so much about you.’
‘What does she know about me?’
‘Ah, you must ask her — I can’t tell you!’
‘I don’t care what she knows,’ said my young lady. After a moment she went on — ‘She must have seen that I’m not very sociable.’ And then — ‘What are you laughing at?’
My laughter was for an instant irrepressible — there was something so droll in the way she had said that.
‘Well, you are not sociable and yet you are. Mrs. Peck is, at any rate, and thought that ought to make it easy for you to enter into conversation with her.’
‘Oh, I don’t care for her conversation — I know what it amounts to.’ I made no rejoinder — I scarcely knew what rejoinder to make — and the girl went on, ‘I know what she thinks and I know what she says.’ Still I was silent, but the next moment I saw that my delicacy had been wasted, for Miss Mavis asked, ‘Does she make out that she knows Mr. Porterfield?’
‘No, she only says that she knows a lady who knows him.’
‘Yes, I know — Mrs. Jeremie. Mrs. Jeremie’s an idiot!’ I was not in a position to controvert this, and presently my young lady said she would sit down. I left her in her chair — I saw that she preferred it — and wandered to a distance. A few minutes later I met Jasper again, and he stopped of his own accord and said to me —
‘We shall be in about six in the evening, on the eleventh day — they promise it.’
‘If nothing happens, of course.’
‘Well, what’s going to happen?’
‘That’s just what I’m wondering!’ And I turned away and went below with the foolish but innocent satisfaction of thinking that I had mystified him.
‘I don’t know what to do, and you must help me,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint said to me that evening, as soon as I went in to see her.
‘I’ll do what I can — but what’s the matter?’
‘She has been crying here and going on — she has quite upset me.’
‘Crying? She doesn’t look like that.’
‘Exactly, and that’s what startled me. She came in to see me this afternoon, as she has done before, and we talked about the weather and the run of the ship and the manners of the stewardess and little commonplaces like that, and then suddenly, in the midst of it, as she sat there, 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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