She had changed the conversation so suddenly, rushing off from that great question as to the condition of women generally to the very unimportant matter of the dancing powers of the ladies who were manoeuvring before them, that Caldigate hardly knew how to travel with her so quickly. ‘They all dance well enough for ship dancing,’ he replied; ‘but as to what you were saying about women ——’
‘No, Mr. Caldigate; they don’t dance well enough for ship dancing. Dancing, wherever it be done, should be graceful. A woman may at any rate move her feet in accordance with time, and she need not skip, nor prance, nor jump, even on board ship. Look at that stout lady.’
Everybody by this time knew everybody’s name.
‘If she is Mrs. Callander?’
Mrs. Smith, no doubt, knew very well that it was Mrs. Callander.
‘Does not your ear catch separately the thud of her footfall every time she comes to the ground?’
‘She is fat, fair, and forty.’
‘Fat enough; — and what she lacks in fairness may be added on to the forty; but if she were less ambitious and had a glimmer of taste, she might do better than that. You see that girl with the green scarf round her? She is young and good-looking. Why should she spring about like a bear on a hot iron?’
‘You should go and teach them.’
‘It is just what I should like; only they would not be taught; and I should be stern, and tell them the truth.’
‘Why don’t you go and dance with them yourself?’
‘Why not? There is one second-class lady there?’ This was true. For though none of the men would have been admitted from the inferior rank to join the superior, the rule of demarcation had so far been broken that a pretty girl who was known to some of the first-class passengers had been invited to come over the line and join the amusements of the evening ‘She dances about as well as any of them.’
‘If you were among them would you dare to come out and ask me to join them? That is a question which you won’t even dare to answer.’
‘It is a little personal.’
‘“No,” you ought to say. “I could not do that because your clothes are so poor, and because of your ragged old hat, and I am not quite sure that your shoes are fit to be seen.” Is not that what you would say, if you said what you thought?’
‘Perhaps it is.’
‘And if you said all that you thought, perhaps you would remind me that a woman of whom nobody knows anything is always held to be disreputable. That girl, no doubt, has her decent belongings. I have nobody.’
‘You have your friends on board.’
‘No, I have not. I have not a single friend on board. Those Cromptons were very unwillingly persuaded to take a sort of interest in me, though they really know nothing about me. And I have already lost any good which might come from their protection. She told me yesterday, that I ought not to walk about with Mr. Shand.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘Of course I told her to mind her own business. I had no alternative. A woman has to show a little spirit or she will be trodden absolutely into the dirt. It was something to have a woman to speak to, even though I had not a thought in common with her; — though she was to my feeling as inferior to myself as I no doubt am thought to be by that fat prancing woman to herself. Even Mrs. Crompton’s countenance was of value. But if I had yielded she would have taken it out in tyranny. So now we don’t speak.’
‘That is a pity.’
‘It is a pity. You watch them all and see how they look at me — the women, I mean. They know that Mr. Shand speaks to me, and that you and Mr. Shand are the two gentlemen we have among us. There are, no doubt, a dozen of them watching me now, somewhere, and denouncing me for the impropriety of my behaviour.’
‘Is it improper?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Why may we not talk as well as others?’
‘Exactly. But there are people who are tabooed. Look at that Miss Green and the ship doctor.’ At that moment the ship’s doctor and the young lady in question came close to them in the dance. ‘There is no harm in Miss Green talking by the hour together with the doctor, because she is comfortably placed. She has got an old father and mother on board who don’t look after her, and everything is respectable. But if I show any of the same propensities I ought almost to be put into irons.’
‘Has anybody else been harsh to you?’
‘The Captain has been making inquiries — no doubt with the idea that he may at last be driven to harsh measures. Have you got a sister?’
‘Or a mother?’
‘Or a housemaid?’
‘Not even a housemaid. I have no female belongings whatever.’
‘Don’t you know that if you had a sister, and a mother, and a housemaid, your mother would quite expect that your sister should in time have a lover, but that she would be horrified at the idea of the housemaid having a follower?’
‘I did not know that. I thought housemaids got married sometimes.’
‘Human nature is stronger than tyranny.’
‘But what does all this mean? You are not a housemaid, and you have not got a mistress?’
‘Not exactly. But at present; — if I say my outward woman you’ll know what I mean perhaps.’
‘I think I shall.’
‘Well; my present outward woman stands to me in lieu of the housemaid’s broom, and the united authority of the Captain and Mrs. Crompton make up the mistress between them. And the worst of it all is, that though I have to endure the tyranny, I have not got the follower. It is as hard upon Mr. Shand as it is upon me.’
‘Shand, I suppose, can take care of himself.’
‘No doubt; — and so in real truth can I. I can stand apart and defy them all; and as I look at them looking at me, and almost know with what words they are maligning me, I can tell myself that they are beneath me, and that I care nothing for them. I shall do nothing which will enable any one to interfere with me. But it seems hard that all this should be so because I am a widow — and because I am alone — and because I am poorly clothed.’
As she said this there were tears in her eyes, true ones, and something of the sound of a broken sob in her voice. And Caldigate was moved. The woman’s condition was to be pitied, whether it had been produced with or without fault on her own part. To be alone is always sad — even for a man; but for a woman, and for a young woman, it is doubly melancholy. Of a sudden the dancing was done and the lamps were taken away.
‘If you do not want to go to bed,’ he said, ‘let us take a turn.’
‘I never go to bed. I mean here, on board ship. I linger up on deck, half hiding myself about the place, till I see some quartermaster eying me suspiciously and then I creep down into the little hole which I occupy with three of Mrs. Crompton’s children and then I cry myself to sleep. But I don’t call that going to bed.’
‘Take a turn now.’
‘I shall feel like the housemaid talking to her follower through the area-gate. But she is brave, and why should I be a coward?’ Then she put her hand upon his arm. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘why are not you dancing in the other part of the ship with Mrs. Callander and Miss Green, instead of picking your way among the hencoops here with me?’
‘This suited my pocket best — and my future prospects.’
‘You are making a delightful experiment in roughing it — as people eat pic-nic dinners out in the woods occasionally, so that there may be a break in the monotony of chairs and tables.’
While Shand had been unravelling her mystery, she, perhaps, had been more successful in unravelling his.
‘We intend to be miners.’
‘And to return home before long with some vast treasure. I hope you may be successful.’
‘You seem to doubt it.’
‘Of course it is doubtful. If not, the thing would be common and hardly worth the doing. Will Mr. Shand be very persistent as a working miner?’
‘I hope so.’
‘He seems to me to have great gifts of idleness, which on board ship are a blessing. How I do envy men when I see them smoking! It seems to me that nothing is wanting to them. Women have their needlework; but though they hate it less than idleness, they do hate it. But you really like your tobacco.’
‘I don’t like being idle. I read a good deal. Do you read?’
‘I have but few books here. I have read more perhaps than most young women of my age. I came away in such a hurry that I have almost nothing with me.’
‘Can I lend you books?’
‘If you will. I will promise to take care of them.’
‘I have “The Heartbroken One,” by Spratt, you know. It is very absurd, but full of life from beginning to end. All that Spratt writes is very lively.’
‘I don’t think I care for Spratt. He may be lively, but he’s not life-like.’
‘And “Michael Bamfold.” It is hard work, perhaps but very thoughtful, if you can digest that sort of thing.’
‘I hate thought.’
‘What do you say to Miss Bouverie’s last; —“Ridden to a Standstill;” a little loud, perhaps, but very interesting? Or “Green Grow the Rushes O,” by Mrs. Tremaine? None of Mrs. Tremaine’s people do anything that anybody would do, but they all talk well.’
‘I hate novels written by women. Their girls are so unlovely, and their men such absurdly fine fellows!’
‘I have William Coxe’s “Lock picked at Last,” of which I will defy you to find the secret till you have got to the end of it.’
‘I am a great deal too impatient.’
‘And Thompson’s “Four Marquises.” That won’t give you any trouble, because you will know it all from the first chapter.’
‘And never have a moment of excitement from the beginning to the end. I don’t think I care very much for novels. Have you nothing else?’
Caldigate had many other books, a Shakespeare, some lighter poetry, and sundry heavier works of which he did not wish specially to speak, lest he should seem to be boasting of his own literary taste; but at last it was settled that on the next morning he should supply her with what choice he had among the poets. Then at about midnight they parted, and Caldigate, as he found his way down to his cabin, saw the quartermaster with his eye fixed upon Mrs. Smith. There is no so stern guardian of morality and propriety as your old quartermaster on board a first-class ship.
‘You have been having a grand time of it with Mrs. Smith,’ said Shand as soon as Caldigate was in their cabin.
‘Pretty well — as far as fine times go on board ship. Is there anything against it?’
‘Oh, no, not that I know of. I started the hare; if you choose to run it I have no right to complain, I suppose.’
‘I don’t know anything about the hare, but you certainly have no right to complain because I have been talking to Mrs. Smith; — unless indeed you tell me that you are going to make her Mrs. Shand.’
‘You are much more likely to make her Mrs. Caldigate.’
‘I don’t know that I should have any objection; — that is, if I wanted a wife. She is good-looking, clever, well-educated, and would be well-mannered were it not that she bristles up against the ill-usage of the world too roughly.’
‘I didn’t know it had gone so far as that,’ said Shand, angrily.
‘Nor did I, till you suggested it to me. Now I think I’ll go to sleep, if you please, and dream about it.’
He did not go to sleep, but lay awake half thinking and half dreaming. He certainly liked Mrs. Smith; but then, as he had begun to find out of himself he liked women’s society generally. He was almost jealous of the doctor, because the doctor was allowed to talk to Miss Green and waltz with Miss Green, whereas he could not approach her. Then he thought of Maria Shand and that kiss in the little back parlour — the kiss which had not meant much, but which had meant something; and then of Julia Babington, to whom he was not quite sure that he ought not to feel himself engaged. But the face that was clearest to him of all — and which became the dearer the nearer that he approached to a state of dozing — was that of Hester Bolton, whose voice he had hardly heard, who had barely spoken to him; — the tips of whose fingers he had only just touched. If there was any one thing fixed on his mind it was that, as soon as he had put together a large lump of gold, he would go back to Cambridge and win Hester Bolton to be his wife. But yet what a singular woman was this Mrs. Smith! As to marrying her, that of course had been a joke produced by the petulance of his snoring friend. He began to dislike Shand, because he did snore so loudly, and drank so much bottled ale, and smelt so strongly of cavendish tobacco. Mrs. Smith was at any rate much too good for Shand. Surely she must have been a lady, or her voice would not have been sweet and silvery? And though she did bristle roughly against the ill-usage of the world, and say strong things, she was never absolutely indelicate or even loud. And she was certainly very interesting. How did it come to pass that she was so completely alone, so poor, so unfriended and yet possessed of such gifts? There certainly was a mystery, and it would certainly be his fate, and not the fate of Dick Shand, to unravel it. The puzzle was much too delicate and too intricate for Dick Shand’s rough hands. Then, giving his last waking thoughts for a moment to Hester Bolton, he went to sleep in spite of the snoring.
On the next morning, as soon as he was out of bed, he opened a small portmanteau in which he had put up some volumes the day before he left Pollington and to which he had not yet had recourse since the beginning of the voyage. From these he would select one or two for the use of his new friend. So he dragged out the valise from beneath the berth, while Shand abused him for the disturbance he made. On the top, lying on the other volumes, which were as he had placed them, was a little book, prettily bound, by no means new, which he was sure had never been placed there by himself. He took it up, and, standing in the centre of the cabin, between the light of the porthole and Dick’s bed, he examined it. It was a copy of Thomson’s ‘Seasons’, and on the flyleaf was written in a girl’s hand the name of its late owner — Maria Shand. The truth flashed upon him at once. She must have gone down on that last night after he was in bed, and thus have made her little offering in silence, knowing that it would be hidden from him till he was far away from her.
‘What book is that?’ said Shand suddenly, emerging with his head and shoulders from the low berth.
‘A book of mine,’ said Caldigate, disconcerted for the moment.
‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘I am looking for something to lend to Mrs. Smith.’
‘That is Molly’s Thomson’s “Seasons,”’ said the brother, remembering, as we are so apt to remember the old thing that had met his eye so often in the old house. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘I didn’t steal it, Dick.’
‘I don’t suppose you did; but I’m sure it’s the book I say.’
‘No doubt it is. If you think it is in bad hands, shall I give it back to you?’
‘I don’t want it. If she gave it you, she was a fool for her pains.’
‘I don’t see that.’
‘I would rather, at any rate, that you would not lend a book with my sister’s name in it to Mrs. Smith.’
‘I was not thinking of doing so. She wants a Shakespeare that I have got here, and a volume of Tennyson.’ Then Dick retreated back into his berth, and snored again, while Caldigate dressed himself. When that operation was completed — which, including his lavations, occupied about five minutes — he went up on the deck with the books for Mrs. Smith in his hand, and with Thomson’s ‘Seasons’ in his pocket. So the poor girl had absolutely stolen down-stairs in the middle of the cold night, and had opened the case and re-fastened it, in order that he, when in strange lands, might find himself in possession of something that had been hers!
He had not been alone a minute or two, and was looking about to see if Mrs. Smith was there, when he was accosted by the Captain. The Captain was a pleasant-looking, handsome man, about forty-five years of age, who had the good word of almost everybody on board, but who had not before spoken specially to Caldigate.
‘Good morning, Mr. Caldigate. I hope you find yourself fairly comfortable where you are.’
‘Pretty well, thank you, Captain.’
‘If there is anything I can do.’
‘We have all that we have a right to expect.’
‘I wish, Mr. Caldigate, I could invite you and your friends to come astern among us sometimes, but it would be contrary to rule.’
‘I can quite understand that, Captain.’
‘You are doing a bit of roughing — no doubt for the sake of experience. If you only knew the sort of roughing I’ve had in my time!’
‘I dare say.’
‘Salt pork and hard biscuit, and only half enough of that. You find yourself among some queer fellow-passengers I dare say, Mr. Caldigate.’
‘Everybody is very civil.’
‘They’re sure to be that to a gentleman. But one has to be careful. The women are the most dangerous.’ Then the Captain laughed, as though it had only been a joke — this allusion to the women. But Caldigate knew that there was more than a joke in it. The Captain had intended to warn him against Mrs. Smith.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14