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Chapter 2

  • People usually spend the first hours of a voyage in squeezing themselves int_heir cabins, taking their little precautions, either so excessive or s_nadequate, wondering how they can pass so many days in such a hole and askin_diotic questions of the stewards, who appear in comparison rare men of th_orld. My own initiations were rapid, as became an old sailor, and so, i_eemed, were Miss Mavis's, for when I mounted to the deck at the end of hal_n hour I found her there alone, in the stern of the ship, her eyes on th_windling 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 th_uddle of farewells before we put off; we talked a little about the boat, ou_ellow-passengers and our prospects, and then I said: "I think you mentione_ast night a name I know—that of Mr. Porterfield."
  • "Oh no I didn't!" she answered very straight while she smiled at me throug_er closely-drawn veil.
  • "Then it was your mother."
  • "Very likely it was my mother." And she continued to smile as if I ought t_ave known the difference.
  • "I venture to allude to him because I've an idea I used to know him," I wen_n.
  • "Oh I see." And beyond this remark she appeared to take no interest; she lef_t to me to make any connexion.
  • "That is if it's the same one." It struck me as feeble to say nothing more; s_ added "My Mr. Porterfield was called David."
  • "Well, so is ours." "Ours" affected me as clever.
  • "I suppose I shall see him again if he's to meet you at Liverpool," _ontinued.
  • "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: tha_nly came later. So I remarked that, not having seen him for so many years, i_as very possible I shouldn't know him.
  • "Well, I've not seen him for a considerable time, but I expect I shall kno_im all the same."
  • "Oh with you it's different," I returned with harmlessly bright significance.
  • "Hasn't he been back since those days?"
  • "I don't know," she sturdily professed, "what days you mean."
  • "When I knew him in Paris—ages ago. He was a pupil of the Ecole des Beau_rts. He was studying architecture."
  • "Well, he's 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 for th_enefit of my perhaps undue levity: "Architecture's very difficult and he'_remendously thorough."
  • "Oh yes, I remember that. He was an admirable worker. But he must have becom_uite a foreigner if it's so many years since he has been at home."
  • She seemed to regard this proposition at first as complicated; but she di_hat she could for me. "Oh he's not changeable. If he were changeable—"
  • Then, however, she paused. I daresay she had been going to observe that if h_ere changeable he would long ago have given her up. After an instant she wen_n: "He wouldn't have stuck so to his profession. You can't make much by it."
  • I sought to attenuate her rather odd maidenly grimness. "It depends on wha_ou call much."
  • "It doesn't make you rich."
  • "Oh of course you've 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 cal_n implication that the gentleman in question didn't live up to hi_rinciples. But I checked myself, asking her if she expected to remain i_urope long—to what one might call settle.
  • "Well, it will be a good while if it takes me as long to come back as it ha_aken me to go out."
  • "And I think your mother said last night that it was your first visit."
  • Miss Mavis, in her deliberate way, met my eyes. "Didn't mother talk!"
  • "It was all very interesting."
  • She continued to look at me. "You don't think that," she then simply stated.
  • "What have I to gain then by saying it?"
  • "Oh men have always something to gain."
  • "You make me in that case feel a terrible failure! I hope at any rate that i_ives you pleasure," I went on, "the idea of seeing foreign lands."
  • "Mercy—I should think so!"
  • This was almost genial, and it cheered me proportionately. "It's a pity ou_hip's not one of the fast ones, if you're impatient."
  • She was silent a little after which she brought out: "Oh I guess it'll be fas_nough!"
  • 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 nin_'clock but not quite dark, as our northward course had already taken us int_he latitude of the longer days. She had made her nest admirably and no_ested from her labours; she lay upon her sofa in a dressing-gown and a ca_hat became her. It was her regular practice to spend the voyage in her cabin, which smelt positively good—such was the refinement of her art; and she had _ecret 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 g_bove, of meeting stewards with plates of supererogatory food. She professe_o be content with her situation- -we promised to lend each other books and _ssured her familiarly that I should be in and out of her room a dozen times _ay—pitying me for having to mingle in society. She judged this a limite_rivilege, for on the deck before we left the wharf she had taken a view o_ur fellow-passengers.
  • "Oh I'm an inveterate, almost a professional observer," I replied, "and wit_hat vice I'm as well occupied as an old woman in the sun with her knitting.
  • It makes me, in any situation, just inordinately and submissively SEE things.
  • I shall see them even here and shall come down very often and tell you abou_hem. You're not interested today, but you will be tomorrow, for a ship's _reat school of gossip. You won't believe the number of researches an_roblems you'll be engaged in by the middle of the voyage."
  • "I? Never in the world!—lying here with my nose in a book and not caring _traw."
  • "You'll participate at second hand. You'll see through my eyes, hang upon m_ips, take sides, feel passions, all sorts of sympathies and indignations.
  • I've an idea," I further developed, "that your young lady's the person o_oard who will interest me most."
  • "'Mine' indeed! She hasn't been near me since we left the dock."
  • "There you are—you do feel she owes you something. Well," I added, "she's ver_urious."
  • "You've such cold-blooded terms!" Mrs. Nettlepoint wailed. "Elle ne sait pa_e conduire; she ought to have come to ask about me."
  • "Yes, since you're under her care," I laughed. "As for her not knowing how t_ehave—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'll tell you before we land. And have you see_uch of your son?"
  • "Oh yes, he has come in several times. He seems very much pleased. He has go_ cabin to himself."
  • "That's great luck," I said, "but I've an idea he's always in luck. I was sur_ should have to offer him the second berth in my room."
  • "And you wouldn't have enjoyed that, because you don't like him," she too_pon herself to say.
  • "What put that into your head?"
  • "It isn't in my head—it's in my heart, my coeur de mere. We guess thos_hings. You think he's selfish. I could see it last night."
  • "Dear lady," I contrived promptly enough to reply, "I've no general idea_bout him at all. He's just one of the phenomena I am going to observe. H_eems to me a very fine young man. However," I added, "since you've mentione_ast night I'll admit that I thought he rather tantalised you. He played wit_our suspense."
  • "Why he came at the last just to please me," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
  • I was silent a little. "Are you sure it was for your sake?"
  • "Ah, perhaps it was for yours!"
  • I bore up, however, against this thrust, characteristic of perfidious woma_hen you presume to side with her against a fond tormentor. "When he went ou_n the balcony with that girl," I found assurance to suggest, "perhaps sh_sked him to come for HERS."
  • "Perhaps she did. But why should he do everything she asks him—such as sh_s?"
  • "I don't know yet, but perhaps I shall know later. Not that he'll tell me—fo_e'll never tell me anything: he's not," I consistently opined, "one of thos_ho 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," _miled.
  • "You ARE cold-blooded—it's uncanny!" my friend exclaimed.
  • "Ah this is nothing yet! Wait a while—you'll see. At sea in general I'_wful—I exceed the limits. If I've outraged her in thought I'll jum_verboard. There are ways of asking—a man doesn't need to tell a woma_hat—without the crude words."
  • "I don't know what you imagine between them," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
  • "Well, nothing," I allowed, "but what was visible on the surface. I_ranspired, as the newspapers say, that they were old friends."
  • "He met her at some promiscuous party—I asked him about it afterwards. She'_ot a person"—my hostess was confident—"whom he could ever think o_eriously."
  • "That's exactly what I believe."
  • "You don't observe—you know—you imagine," Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to argue.
  • "How do you reconcile her laying a trap for Jasper with her going out t_iverpool on an errand of love?"
  • Oh I wasn't to be caught that way! "I don't for an instant suppose she laid _rap; I believe she acted on the impulse of the moment. She's going out t_iverpool on an errand of marriage; that's not necessarily the same thing a_n errand of love, especially for one who happens to have had a persona_mpression of the gentleman she's engaged to."
  • "Well, there are certain decencies which in such a situation the mos_bandoned of her sex would still observe. You apparently judge her capable—o_o evidence—of violating them."
  • "Ah you don't understand the shades of things," I returned. "Decencies an_iolations, dear lady—there's no need for such heavy artillery! I ca_erfectly imagine that without the least immodesty she should have said t_asper on the balcony, in fact if not in words: 'I'm in dreadful spirits, bu_f 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.
  • My poor friend wondered. "What then is she doing?"
  • "She's walking with your son."
  • Mrs. Nettlepoint for a moment said nothing; then she treated me to anothe_nconsequence. "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. O_he afternoon of the morrow we had another talk, and she told me that in th_orning Miss Mavis had paid her a long visit. She knew nothing, poor creature, about anything, but her intentions were good and she was evidently in her ow_yes conscientious and decorous. And Mrs. Nettlepoint concluded these remark_ith the sigh "Unfortunate person!"
  • "You think she's a good deal to be pitied then?"
  • "Well, her story sounds dreary—she told me a good deal of it. She fell t_alking little by little and went from one thing to another. She's in tha_ituation when a girl MUST open herself—to some woman."
  • "Hasn't she got Jasper?" I asked.
  • "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, very grossly, a flirt. She gav_e no answer, but went on to remark that she found it odd and interesting t_ee the way a girl like Grace Mavis resembled the girls of the kind sh_erself knew better, the girls of "society," at the same time that sh_iffered from them; and the way the differences and resemblances were so mixe_p that on certain questions you couldn't tell where you'd find her. You'_hink she'd feel as you did because you had found her feeling so, and the_uddenly, in regard to some other matter—which was yet quite the same—she'd b_tterly wanting. Mrs. Nettlepoint proceeded to observe—to such idl_peculations does the vacancy of sea-hours give encouragement—that sh_ondered whether it were better to be an ordinary girl very well brought up o_n extraordinary girl not brought up at all.
  • "Oh I go in for the extraordinary girl under all circumstances."
  • It's true that if you're VERY well brought up you're not, you can't be, ordinary," said Mrs. Nettlepoint, smelling her strong salts. "You're a lady, at any rate."
  • "And Miss Mavis is fifty miles out—is that what you mean?"
  • "Well—you've seen her mother."
  • "Yes, but I think your contention would be that among such people the mothe_oesn't count."
  • "Precisely, and that's bad."
  • "I see what you mean. But isn't it rather hard? If your mother doesn't kno_nything it's better you should be independent of her, and yet if you are tha_onstitutes a bad note." I added that Mrs. Mavis had appeared to coun_ufficiently two nights before. She had said and done everything she wanted, while the girl sat silent and respectful. Grace's attitude, so far as he_arent was concerned, had been eminently decent.
  • "Yes, but she 'squirmed' for her," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
  • "Ah if you know it I may confess she has told me as much."
  • My friend 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 do think her _lirt?"
  • "Try her yourself—that's better than asking another woman; especially as yo_retend to study folk."
  • "Oh your judgement wouldn't probably at all determine mine. It's as bearing o_OU I ask it." Which, however, demanded explanation, so that I was duly frank; confessing myself curious as to how far maternal immorality would go.
  • It made her at first but repeat my words. "Maternal immorality?"
  • "You desire your son to have every possible distraction on his voyage, and i_ou can make up your mind in the sense I refer to that will make it all right.
  • He'll have no responsibility."
  • "Heavens, how you analyse!" she cried. "I haven't in the least your passio_or making up my mind."
  • "Then if you chance it," I returned, "you'll be more immoral still."
  • "Your reasoning's strange," said Mrs. Nettlepoint; "when it was you who trie_o put into my head yesterday that she had asked him to come."
  • "Yes, but in good faith."
  • "What do you mean, in such a case, by that?"
  • "Why, as girls of that sort do. Their allowance and measure in such matters,"
  • I expounded, "is much larger than that of young persons who have been, as yo_ay, VERY well brought up; and yet I'm not sure that on the whole I don'_hink them thereby the more innocent. Miss Mavis is engaged, and she's to b_arried next week, but it's an old old story, and there's no more romance i_t than if she were going to be photographed. So her usual life proceeds, an_er usual life consists—and that of ces demoiselles in general—in havin_lenty of gentlemen's society. Having it I mean without having any harm fro_t."
  • Mrs. Nettlepoint had given me due attention. "Well, if there's no harm from i_hat are you talking about and why am I immoral?"
  • I hesitated, laughing. "I retract—you're sane and clear. I'm sure she think_here won't be any harm," I added. "That's the great point."
  • "The great point?"
  • "To be settled, I mean."
  • "Mercy, we're not trying them!" cried my friend. "How can WE settle it?"
  • "I mean of course in our minds. There will be nothing more interesting thes_ext ten days for our minds to exercise themselves upon."
  • "Then they'll get terribly tired of it," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
  • "No, no—because the interest will increase and the plot will thicken. I_imply can't NOT," I insisted. She looked at me as if she thought me more tha_ephistophelean, and I went back to something she had lately mentioned. "S_he told you everything in her life was dreary?"
  • "Not everything, but most things. And she didn't tell me so much as I guesse_t. She'll tell me more the next time. She'll behave properly now about comin_n to see me; I told her she ought to."
  • "I'm glad of that," I said. "Keep her with you as much as possible."
  • "I don't follow you closely," Mrs. Nettlepoint replied, "but so far as I do _on't think your remarks in the best taste."
  • "Well, I'm too excited, I lose my head in these sports," I had to recognise —"cold-blooded as you think me. Doesn't she like Mr. Porterfield?"
  • "Yes, that's the worst of it."
  • I kept making her stare. "The worst of it?"
  • "He's so good—there's no fault to be found with him. Otherwise she'd hav_hrown it all up. It has dragged on since she was eighteen: she became engage_o him before he went abroad to study. It was one of those very young an_erfectly needless blunders that parents in America might make so much les_ossible than they do. The thing is to insist on one's daughter waiting, o_he engagement's being long; and then, after you've got that started, to tak_t on every occasion as little seriously as possible—to make it die out. Yo_an easily tire it to death," Mrs. Nettlepoint competently stated. "However,"
  • she concluded, "Mr. Porterfield has taken this one 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 really no money." My friend was even more confidently able to repor_t than I had been.
  • "He ought to have got some, in seven years," I audibly reflected.
  • "So I think she thinks. There are some sorts of helplessness that ar_ontemptible. However, a small difference has taken place. That's why he won'_ait any longer. His mother has come out, she has something—a little—and she'_ble to assist him. She'll live with them and bear some of the expenses, an_fter her death the son will have what there is."
  • "How old is she?" I cynically asked.
  • "I haven't the least idea. But it doesn't, on his part, sound very heroic—o_ery inspiring for our friend here. He hasn't been to America since he firs_ent out."
  • "That's an odd way of adoring her," I observed.
  • "I made that objection mentally, but I didn't express it to her. She met i_ndeed a little by telling me that he had had other chances to marry."
  • "That surprises me," I remarked. "But did she say," I asked, "that SHE ha_ad?"
  • "No, and that's one of the things I thought nice in her; for she must hav_ad. She didn't try to make out that he had spoiled her life. She has thre_ther sisters and there's very little money at home. She has tried to mak_oney; she has written little things and painted little things—and dreadfu_ittle things they must have been; too bad to think of. Her father has had _ong illness and has lost his place—he was in receipt of a salary in connexio_ith some waterworks—and one of her sisters has lately become a widow, wit_hildren and without means. And so as in fact she never has married any on_lse, whatever opportunities she may have encountered, she appears to hav_ust made up her mind to go out to Mr. Porterfield as the least of her evils.
  • But it isn't very amusing."
  • "Well," I judged after all, "that only makes her doing it the more honourable.
  • She'll go through with it, whatever it costs, rather than disappoint him afte_e has waited so long. It's true," I continued, "that when a woman acts from _ense of honour—!"
  • "Well, when she does?" said Mrs. Nettlepoint, for I hung back perceptibly.
  • "It's often so extravagant and unnatural a proceeding as to entail heavy cost_n some one."
  • "You're very impertinent. We all have to pay for each other all the while an_or each other's virtues as well as vices."
  • "That's precisely why I shall be sorry for Mr. Porterfield when she steps of_he ship with her little bill. I mean with her teeth clenched."
  • "Her teeth are not in the least clenched. She's quite at her ease now"—Mrs.
  • Nettlepoint could answer for that.
  • "Well, we must try and keep her so," I said.
  • "You must take care that Jasper neglects nothing." I scarce know wha_eflexions 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 he_o come; I'm very glad of that. It's 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 on us by main force."
  • "Oh yes, I can testify to that. Therefore I'm glad too. We should have misse_t, I think."
  • "How seriously you take it!" Mrs. Nettlepoint amusedly cried.
  • "Ah wait a few days!"—and I got up to leave her.