NEPTUNE TAKES A HAND
The evolution of a hero is seldom a gradual process; he usually springs into public favor suddenly and dramatically. Not so with the Honorable Percival. He had to scramble ignominiously on all fours through a canvas tunnel, he had to brave the smiles of the on-lookers while he learned new steps on the ball-room floor, he had to participate in a street fight and have an artery severed before he was accorded the honor of a pedestal.
Bobby's graphic account of his defense of the drunken sailor, together with his own vigorous disavowal of any heroism in the affair, won for him a halo. After months of tedious anchorage in the dull harbor of seclusion, he found himself once more afloat on a sea of approval, tasting again the sweet savor of adulation, and spreading his sails to catch each passing breath of admiration.
Reclining in his deck-chair, with his arm in a sling and a becoming pallor suffusing his classic features, he became an object of the greatest solicitude to his fellow-passengers. The fluttering attentions he received warmed him into geniality, and in return he dispensed regal favors. He allowed Mrs. Weston to consult him concerning her presentation at court the following spring, he let Andy Black arrange his tie, and permitted Elise Weston to cut the leaves of his magazine. He graciously submitted to endless inquiries concerning his hourly progress, and even went so far as to accept two cream peppermints from the old missionary, who had acquired a new box.
The only drawback to this feast of brotherly love lay in the fact that he could not obtain the tÍte-a-tÍte he so earnestly desired with Bobby Boynton. She was always with him, to be sure, but so was everybody else, especially Mrs. Weston, who had been officially appointed to stand guard over the situation.
The captain had been stung to active measure by a chance remark of Andy Black's when they were alone at breakfast.
"Accept my condolences," that youth had lugubriously remarked. "You have missed the chance of your young life."
"How's that?" asked the captain.
"By not getting me for a son-in-law. Miss Bobby broke the news to me at the dance last night."
"Did she give you a reason?" asked the captain, arresting his cup in mid-air.
"I didn't need one. I've been rooming with it ever since we left Honolulu."
"She didn't say it was--"
"Oh, she as good as told me. Same old chestnut I've been handed out all my life. Said she cared for somebody else, but that she'd never forget me. I can't see much satisfaction in occupying a pigeon-hole in a girl's heart when, another fellow's got the key to it."
The captain, was concerned with something far more serious than Andy's matrimonial failures.
"What makes you think it's Hascombe?" he asked.
"What makes everybody think so?" asked Andy. "What makes him think so himself?"
The captain lost no time in finding Mrs. Weston, and laying the case before her.
"He's got to be headed off," he said anxiously. "It 's getting serious."
"It certainly looks so after yesterday and last night. But I can't for the life of me see why you oppose it. He's really a tremendous catch, and it's no wonder Bobby's head is turned. We are all a bit daft over him since he condescended to notice us."
"Suffering Moses!" exploded the captain. "Let any fool come along and shed a few drops of blood, then kiss his hand to the grand stand, and he's got the women at his feet! I thought Bobby had more sense than to cotton to that gilded rooster. I've a good mind to lock her up in her stateroom until we reach Hong-Kong."
Mrs. Weston shook her head and smiled.
"You can't manage her that way. She is the sweetest thing that ever was, but she is the kind of girl that can't be forced."
"Well, she shall be!" cried the captain, with savage determination. "I headed her off once, and I'll do it again. I tell you, I'd rather see her dead than married to an Englishman."
"Why, Captain Boynton!"
"I would. It's the Lord's truth. Her mother before her got caught by just such a high-headed British fool. She was welcome to him, and he to her, though Heaven knows she paid for it. If I thought my girl was going the same way--"
His square jaw quivered suddenly, and he turned away abruptly.
Mrs. Weston was wise enough to keep silent until he had mastered himself, then she said kindly:
"I don't wonder you feel as you do. You leave the matter to me, and I'll do my best to keep things in abeyance until we reach Hong-Kong. Once they are separated, the danger is practically over."
It is doubtful, however, whether the combined efforts of the captain, Mrs. Weston, and even Percival himself could have kept things in statu quo had a timely typhoon not arrived and taken things into its own hands. It was about four in the afternoon that the sky darkened and the bright blue water turned to gray. The wind shifted and came on to blow dead ahead.
"What a queer light there is on everything!" cried Mrs. Weston, who was dutifully stationed between Bobby and Percival, doing sentry duty. "I wonder if it is going to blow up a storm."
"I hope so," said Bobby. "I love for things to happen."
Percival glanced despairingly at Mrs. Weston, who was beginning on a fresh ball of yarn. If she continued to sit there and knit the rest of her life, nothing ever would happen.
"I ought to close my port-hole if it's going to rain," she said. "Do you think it is?"
"Sure to," said Percival, with unusual alacrity. "Hard shower any minute."
Mrs. Weston rose reluctantly.
"Don't you think you'd better come down, too, Bobby, and close yours?"
"Mine's closed, thanks. I'll take your place and hold Mr. Hascombe's tea-cup."
Now, when a person with outrageously blue eyes is leaning on the arm of your steamer-chair, steadying your saucer for you, and the wind has blown everybody else off the deck except a bow-legged Chinese steward who is absorbed in tying things down, it does look as if Fate meant to be propitious.
Percival put his cup in his saucer and let his fingers touch the small hand that held it.
"It's quite worth while," he said, "getting a jab in the wrist, to have you looking after me like this. I wonder if you realize that you saved my life last night?"
"I bet I know what this is leading up to," cried Bobby, accusingly.
"What?" asked Percival, catching his lip between his teeth and looking at her with devouring eyes.
"Much more serious. As a matter of fact, the truth is, I've been trying to get a minute alone with you all day. There's something I want--"
"Oh, yes, I know. It's that Manchu coat. You want it to pack, of course. I'll get it now."
But his fingers held hers fast to the saucer.
"You stupid child! You don't understand. It's yours, everything I have is--"
"Oh, goody! Here's the rain!" cried Bobby. "Andy bet me ten pounds of candy it wouldn't come before night. Quick, let me put your cup under the chair. Don't bother about the cushions."
"But there's something I've got to say to you. You must listen to me!"
"I'll listen to anything you like in the music-room just so it isn't 'Tales from Hoffman.' Come, we'll have to hurry!"
Percival, with his passion once more arrested, strode after her furiously. He was intolerant of every moment that passed before be claimed her for his own, and unable longer to restrain his mad desire to fold her in his arms.
In the midst of these fervent anticipations he was unpleasantly aware of the increased motion of the ship. It was the first time he had felt that pitching, rolling motion since leaving the Golden Gate, and he shuddered involuntarily.
"Here's a cozy little corner all to ourselves!" cried Bobby, tossing the cushions into a nook in the music-room, and inviting him to a place beside her.
But Percival remained standing in the doorway, supporting himself with his free hand, his eyes fixed on space, and a leaden color spreading over his face.
"If you don't mind," he said slowly, "I think I'll go below. Feel the storm a bit in my head. Atmospheric pressure, you know."
"Of course you do," cried Bobby, all solicitude. "It's no wonder, after the blood you lost last night. Sit right down there until I find Judson."