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A BLIGHTED BEING
The Honorable Percival Hascombe came aboard the Pacific liner about to sail from San Francisco, preceded by a fur coat, a gun-case, two pigskin bags, a hat-box, and a valet. He was tall and slender, and moved with an air of fastidious distinction. He wore a small mustache, a monocle, and an expression of unutterable ennui. His costume consisted of a smart tweed traveling-suit, with cap to match, white spats, and a pair of binoculars swung across his shoulders. In his eyes was the look, carefully maintained, of one who has sounded the depths of human tragedy.
Since his advent into the world twenty-eight years before, he had been made to feel but one responsibility. His elder brother, having persistently refused to provide himself with a wife and heir, the duty of perpetuating the family name fell upon him, Percival Hascombe, second son of the late Earl of Westenhanger, of Hascombe Hall, fifth in descent from the great Westenhanger whose marble effigy adorns the dullest and most respectable cathedral in southern England.
From the time Percival had been able to cast a discriminating eye, his adoring family had presented the feminine flowers of the country-side for his inspection. One after another they had met with his grave consideration and subsequent disapprobation. Fears had begun to be entertained that he would follow in the solitary footsteps of his bachelor brother, when Lady Hortense Vevay appeared on the scene.
Lady Hortense, with her mother, the Duchess of Dare, had come down to Devon for the shooting one autumn, seeking rest after a strenuous social season following her presentation at court. She had been there less than a week when she bagged the biggest game in the neighborhood. The explanation was obvious: the Lady Hortense had no faults to be discovered. The closest inspection through two pairs of glasses, Percival's and her own, failed to reveal a flaw. Her birth and position were equal to his own; her beauty, if attenuated, was sufficient; while her discriminating taste amounted to a virtue. The Honorable Percival proffered his hand, and was accepted. Hascombe Hall rang with applause.
All might have been well had not mother and daughter been pressed to seal the compact by a closer intimacy in a ten-days' visit at the hall. The young people were allowed to bask uninterrupted in the light of each other's perfections, and the result was disastrous. Two persons who have achieved distinction as soloists do not take kindly to duets. A few days after the Vevays' return to London, Lady Hortense wrote a perfectly worded note, and asked to be released from the engagement.
The utterly preposterous fact that a Hascombe of Hascombe Hall had been jilted was too amazing a circumstance to be concealed, and the county buzzed with rumors. The Honorable Percival, whose pride had sustained a compound fracture, set sail immediately for America. After a hurried trip across the continent, he was embarking again, this time for Hong-Kong, where a sympathetic married sister held out embracing arms, and a promise of refuge from wagging tongues.
As he moved languidly down the deck and sank into the steamer-chair that bore his name, he assured himself for the fortieth time since leaving England that life bored him to tears. He had sounded its joys and its sorrows, he had exhausted its thrills; it was like a scenic railway over which he was compelled to ride after every detail had become monotonously familiar. There was nothing more for him to learn about life, nothing more for him to feel. At least that is what the Honorable Percival thought. But when one reckons too confidently on having exhausted the varieties of human experience, one is apt to get a jolt.
Carefully selecting a cigarette from a gold case, he struck a light, and, after a whiff or two, lay back and, closing his eyes on the stir and confusion, gave himself up to painful reflections. His shrunken self-esteem, like a feathered thing exposed to wet weather, was clamoring for a sunny spot in which to expand to natural proportions. Had he been able to remain at home, the unending chorus of feminine praise would soon have dried his draggled feathers and left him preening himself contentedly in the comforting assurance that Lady Hortense was in no way worthy of him. But being confronted thus suddenly with the necessity of supplying his egotism with all its nourishment, he found himself unequal to the task. Behind every consoling thought stalked that totally incredible "No." He tortured his brain for possible reasons for Hortense's deflection, but could find none. Detail by detail he reviewed their acquaintance from the first time he had bowed over her fingers, in Lord Carlton's hunting-lodge, to the moment he had touched his lips to the same fingers in formal farewell on the terrace at Hascombe Hall. It had been such a well-bred courtship from the start, so thoroughly approved by both sides, so perfectly conducted throughout!
Then, following suddenly on this smooth course of events, came a series of bumps that made Percival wince as he recalled them: protests, evasions, humiliating questions on the part of the public, and then ignominious flight. He shuddered as he thought of the dull, wet days on the Atlantic and his hideous week in America. He had been in a perpetual state of protest against everything from the hotel service to what he termed the "crass vulgarity of the States."
There had been but one oasis in the desert of gloom through which he had traveled, and that had been on his interminable trip across the continent, when for ten brief minutes his blight had been lifted, and he had caught a breath of the incense for which his soul hungered.
It was at a little station in Wyoming that he, a convalescent from love, had for the first time in weeks managed to look up and take a bit of amatory nourishment. He was standing alone on the rear platform of the observation-car, arms on railing, watching with no interest whatever the taking off of mail-bags. Suddenly within his line of vision came a stalwart young chap and a girl, each astride a bronco. They drew rein at the platform, cursorily scanned the waiting train, glanced at him, then at each other, and, apparently without the slightest reason, burst into unrestrained merriment. Percival continued to survey them calmly and haughtily through his monocle. His first glance had revealed the fact that the girl was strikingly pretty. Her lithe young body showed round and comely in its khaki suit and brown leggings. Her black mane was braided in two short, thick plaits with a dash of scarlet ribbons at the ends. Blue eyes, full of daring, danced under the blackest of brows, and the smile she flashed at her companion revealed a dimple of distracting proportions.
As Percival gazed he was quite oblivious of the fact that the laugh was at his expense. In fact, he accorded her darting glances a far more flattering interpretation, and when her escort dismounted, and disappeared within the station, he deliberately caught her eye and held it. There was a touch of daring in her face and figure, an evident sense of security in the fact that the train was already beginning to move. He shifted his position from the end of the platform to the side next the station, and she met the challenge by gathering up her reins and keeping pace with the slow-moving train.
For a short distance road and track lay parallel, and as the train slowly got under way, the bronco was put to a run. Side by side, not ten feet apart, Percival and the girl moved abreast, their eyes keeping company. He had never seen anything so vitally young and untrammeled as she was. She rode superbly, like an Indian, leaning well forward, gripping the bronco with her knees, with one hand grasping his mane. Every muscle was tense with life, every nerve a-quiver with glee. Before the young Englishman knew it, his own sluggish blood was stirring in his veins through sympathy. Then the train began to gain upon her, and throwing herself back in the saddle, she shook a vanquished head. As Percival raised his cap she wheeled her horse, and, standing in the stirrups, blew an audacious kiss from her finger-tips. The next instant she was dashing away across the wide, bleak prairies, the only living thing in sight, her scarlet ribbons a streak of color in the dull-gray landscape.
Percival had taken heart of grace from that airy kiss. It stood to him as a symbol that, though one of the sex had proved a deserter to his standard, there were still volunteers. He treasured the incident as a king treasures the homage of his humblest subject when rebellion is rife in the kingdom. On such trifles often hang one's self-esteem.
When the stir and bustle on deck became so lively that he was no longer able to indulge in introspection, he got up and indifferently joined the moving throng. The warning had sounded for those going ashore, and the numerous gangways were crowded. Passengers lined the promenade-deck, shouting and waving to the crowd on the wharf below. From the bridge-deck the captain could be heard cheerfully swearing through a megaphone at the second officer below. Chinese deck-stewards glided about in their felt slippers, trying to attach the right person to the right steamer-chair. Cabin-boys scurried about with baskets of fruit and flowers and other sea-going impedimenta that, after one appreciative glance from the recipient, are usually consigned to the ice-box. All was noise and confusion.
Percival's critical eye swept the line of human backs that presented themselves at the railing. The same old types! He could describe them with his eyes shut: the conventional globe-trotters, avid to obtain and to impart information; business men comparing statistics and endlessly discussing the tariff; rich wanderers in quest of health; poor missionaries in quest of "foreign fields"; fussy Frenchmen; stolid Germans; a few suspicious-looking Englishmen; and always the ubiquitous Americans, who had the same effect upon him that a highly colored cloth has on the delicate sensibilities of a certain large animal.
The most conspicuous example of the last class was a somewhat noisy young person in a still more resonant steamer-coat who hung at an angle of forty-five degrees over the railing, and exchanged confidences of a personal nature with an old man on the wharf twenty feet below. Every time Percival's walk brought him toward the bow of the boat, his eyes were offended by that blue-and-lavender steamer-coat and by a pair of beaded-leather slippers with three straps across the instep and absurdly high French heels. Could any one but an American, he soliloquized, be guilty of starting on a journey in such a costume?
The prospect of being imprisoned between decks for four weeks, with this heterogeneous collection appalled him. His only safety lay in maintaining a rigid and uncompromising aloofness. He would discourage all advances from the start, he would promptly nip in the bud the first sign of intrusion. He had left the only country an Englishman regards as the proper place for existence, to cross two abominable seas and an even more abominable continent, for the sole purpose of privacy, and privacy he meant to have at all costs.
As the Saluria weighed anchor and steamed out of the Golden Gate, he went below to see that his valet had made satisfactory disposition of his varied belongings. His state-room was at the end of a short passage leading from the main, one, and he was displeased at finding the deep ledge under the passage window completely filled with flowers and fruit that evidently belonged to some one occupying a room in the same passage.
He rang for the cabin-boy.
"Remove that greengrocer's shop!" he commanded peremptorily. "It is abominably stuffy down here. We can't have the port-holes filled up like that, you know."
The bland face of the young Chinaman assumed an expression of mild inquiry.
"Take away!" ordered Percival, resorting to gesture.
"No can," said the boy, calmly. "All same b'long one missy. Missy b'long cap'n."
Percival turned impatiently to his valet, who was coming through the passage.
"Judson, get those things out of the window, and keep them out. Do you hear?"
"Yes, sir. But where shall I put them, sir?"
"On the floor--in the sea--wherever you like," said Percival, as he slipped his arms into the top-coat that was being respectfully held for him.
Once again on deck, he found that the wind had acquired a sudden edge. The short chop of the waves and scudding of gray clouds indicated that the customary bit of rough weather after leaving the Golden Gate was to be expected. Percival was not happy in rough weather. He attributed it to extreme sensitiveness to atmospheric conditions. Whatever the cause, the result remained that he was not happy.
The motion of the vessel made him pause a moment. The casual observer would have said he stopped to cast an experienced eye on a sky that could not deceive him; but the casual observer does not always know. It is a long distance between the prow and the stern of an ocean liner, when the deck is composed of alternating mountains and valleys that one has to climb and descend. Percival found it decidedly hard going before he reached his steamer-chair.
When he did so, he encountered a sight that filled him with chagrin. Wrapped in the folds of his rug was that obnoxious blue-and-lavender steamer-coat, with its owner snugly ensconced within, her eyes closed, and her cheek brazenly reposing on the Hascombe crest that adorned the pillow under her head!
Percival paused, irresolute, and his nostrils quivered. He wanted very much to sit down, and he was unwilling to occupy any other steamer-chair, for fear its owner might claim it. There was nothing left for him but to pace up and down that undulating deck until the young person opened her eyes and discovered, by glances which he would render unmistakable, that she was trespassing.
When his third round brought him in front of her, and he saw that she was awake, he carefully adjusted his monocle, and turned upon her a look that was not unfamiliar to certain menials in the employ of Hascombe Hall.
But no withering blight followed his look. Instead, the wearer of the gaudy coat sat up suddenly and said, with a radiant smile:
"Well, did you ever! Where did you come from?"
By a curious twist, his mind suddenly beheld a rolling prairie in place of the tumbling sea, and a comely figure in khaki and brown leggings in place of the muffled form in the hideous coat. His suspicion was confirmed when he met the frank gaze of the bluest eyes that ever held a challenge.
Instead of being amused, Percival was profoundly annoyed. The incident on the train had been pretty enough in its way, but it was closed. As it stood, it had been rather artistic and satisfying. A wild, unknown bit of femininity dashing into his life for ten throbbing minutes, then vanishing into the sunset, was one thing, and this very tangible young person in clothes of the wrong cut and color, addressing him in terms of easy familiarity, was quite another.
"I beg your pardon," he said stiffly. "Did you address me?"
Her eyes clouded.
"Why, I thought--I thought you were some one I knew. Is this your chair?"
"It is. Pray do not discommode yourself?"
"That is all right," she answered, trying to disentangle her high heels from his rug. "I've had my nap, thank you. Think I'll go down and get a sandwich."
Percival waited in frigid silence until she had departed; then he sank limply into the warm nest she had just left, and closed his eyes on a world that failed in all respects to give satisfaction.
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