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If there is a place on earth where one meets with the present face to face, it is on shipboard. Whether salt water and sea air act as a narcotic on memories of the past and dreams of the future has never been proved, but it is undeniably true that at sea time becomes a static thing and concerns itself solely with the affairs of the moment.
During that first long afternoon Percival slept; and if the faithless Hortense essayed to haunt his dreams, she was drowned in the profundity of his slumber. It was not until his valet touched his arm and respectfully submitted the information that the first gong had sounded for dinner that he woke to the fact that the Saluria was still swinging from the trough to the summit of increasingly high waves and that the deck was virtually deserted.
"If you are not feeling quite the thing, sir," said the valet, solicitously, "shall I serve your dinner on deck, sir?"
Instantly Percival rose.
"By no means," he said coldly. "Get me a sherry and bitters. I'll dress at once."
Proud indifference to every passing sensation was manifest in each detail of his careful toilet when he took his place at the captain's table some twenty minutes later. With a haughty inclination of the head, he seated himself and, apparently unaware of the glances cast upon him, devoted himself to an absorbed perusal of the menu. He was quite used to being looked at; in fact, he suffered the admiration of the public with noble tolerance: only it must keep its distance; he could have no presuming.
On his arrival the conversation suffered a sudden chill; but the captain, who knew the signs of approaching icebergs, soon steered the talk back into warm waters. It was evident that the captain was in the habit of occupying the center of the stage, a fact which should have gratified Percival, inasmuch as it focused attention at the far end of the table. Strange to say, he was not gratified. He conceived an immediate dislike for the large, good-looking officer, who seemed built especially to show off his smart uniform, and who brazenly ignored all conventions save those of navigation, His peculiarities of speech, which at another time might have gratified Percival and confirmed the report he was bearing back to England that Americans were, if possible, more obnoxious at home than abroad, now jarred upon him grievously. He found it difficult to follow the story that was causing the present merriment.
"And when my Nelson eye discovered," the captain was concluding, "that Ah Foo was perambulating an affair in Shanghai, I summoned the slave and asked him if his mind was set on becoming festooned in matrimony. He thought it was. So I up and bought the damsel for him, paid one hundred Mex. for her, and, if you'll believe me, haven't had a dime's worth of work out of Ah Foo since!"
Percival found himself on the dry beach of non-comprehension when the tide of laughter followed the receding story,
"A cup of very strong tea and dry toast," he said over his shoulder to the waiting Chinaman.
As his eyes returned to the study of the menu, he was for the first time aware that the objectionable young person, with a glitter of rhinestones in her hair, was sitting next the captain, giving him story for story, and laughing much more than the occasion seemed to Percival to warrant. He particularly disliked to hear a woman laugh aloud in public, and he was vexed with himself that he looked up every time her laugh rang out. To be sure, she was well worth looking at. Despite the clashing colors of her costume, he could not deny the charm of her blue eyes and black hair, and of the red lips whose only fault was that they smiled too much. It was her dress, her freedom, her unrestrained gaiety that offended Percival. In England a girl of her age would still be a trembling bud, modestly hiding behind a mass of elderly foliage.
The absence of a chaperon puzzled him. The two other women at the table, a Mrs. Weston and her daughter, had evidently just met her, and the captain seemed to be the only one who had known her before. He called her "Bobby," and treated her with the easy familiarity of a big brother.
"Don't talk to me about Wyoming!" he was saying now, in answer to some boast of hers. "Anybody can have it that wants it. I make 'em a present of it, with Dakota thrown in. You remember, Bobby, the last time I was at the ranch? All hands on deck at two bells in the morning watch, a twenty-mile sail on a bucking bronco, then back to the ranch, where we shipped a cargo of food that would sink a tramp, A gallon or so of soup in the hold, a saddle of venison, a broiled antelope, and six vegetables in the forward hatchway, with three kinds of pie in the bunkers. It was a regular food jag three times a day. It took me just two weeks at sea to get over those two days on land."
Percival stirred uneasily. His tea and toast were long in coming, and a certain haunted look was dawning on his face. Through the port-holes he could see the deep-purple sky rising to give place to still deeper-purple sea as the ship rose with sickening regularity. He took an olive.
"Isn't there a good deal of motion?" asked Mrs. Weston, a delicate, appealing blonde, whose opinions were always tentative until they received the stamp of masculine approval.
"Motion!" thundered the captain, bringing down a huge tattooed fist on the table. "Isn't that like a woman? When I have ordered this calm weather especially for Mrs. Weston's benefit! I've a good mind to whistle for a hurricane."
"No, no, please!" she protested in mock terror.
Percival turned away from the foolish chatter. Matters of a deep and sinister nature occupied his mind. He felt within him wars and rumors of wars. He wished that the curtains would stop swinging out from the wall in that silly fashion. It was deuced uncanny to see them hang at an angle of twenty-five degrees, then slowly and mysteriously fall back into their places. He tried not to watch them, but it was even more dangerous to look at the man next him breaking soft-boiled eggs into a glass tumbler. He took another olive.
An electric fan overhead whirred incessantly, and the bright, flashing blades smote his eyes with diabolical precision. The circular motion, instead of cooling him, brought beads of perspiration to his brow.
"Who'll have some Chinese chow?" asked the captain. "I always order a dish or two the first night out. Can't give you any birds'-nest soup--"
A violent shudder passed over Percival, and he made a lightning calculation of the distance from the table to the stairway. In doing so he noted that it was a spiral stairway. Why in the name of heaven was everything round? The port-holes, the revolving-chairs, the electric fans, the plates, the olives--
At the thought of olives, all the pent-up possibilities became imminent certainties. He rose dizzily, collided with the Chinaman bringing his tea, and made blindly for the stairs. Half-way up, he staggered; each step rose to meet him, then fell away from his foot the moment he touched it. He grasped the baluster-rail, and stood wildly clinging, like a shipwrecked sailor to a mast. He was dazed, dumb, paralyzed with fear of the inevitable, and aware only of the burst of uncontrollable laughter that had followed his abrupt retreat. Somebody from above held out a succoring hand, at which he grasped frantically. Stumbling, half blind, this unfortunate victim to atmospheric conditions was guided up the remaining stops and out on deck, where he was anchored to the railing and kindly left to his fate.
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