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.
"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.