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THE DAY THAT NEVER WAS
Of all the places in the world where a flirtation can germinate, blossom, and bear fruit overnight, an ocean-liner is the most propitious. Two conventional human beings who in the city streets would pass each other with utter indifference will often drop a conscious lid over a welcoming eye when passing and repassing on the deck of a steamer. When men and women are set adrift for four weeks, with thousands of miles of sparkling water separating them from the past and the present, and with nothing to do but observe one another, something usually happens.
The present voyage of the Saluria was no exception; in fact, it threatened to break all former records. The love-epidemic started in the steerage, where a Dutch boy en route to Java developed a burning attachment for a young stewardess, and it extended to the bridge, where Captain Boynton frequently consigned his duties to the first officer in order to devote his energies to holding Mrs. Weston's worsted. When he was not holding the skein, he was holding the ball, and during the endless process of winding and unwinding he spun his own yarns, recalling tales of wild adventure that alternately shocked and fascinated his gentle listener.
The young people, meanwhile, were not by any means immune. Elise Weston had discovered that the Scotchman's voice blended perfectly with her own, and through endless practising of "Tales from Hoffman" they had arrived at a harmony that promised to be permanent. Andy Black and Bobby Boynton romped through the days, apparently wasting little time on sentiment, but developing a friendship that might at any time become serious.
Only the blighted being wandered the decks alone. Since that morning in the wind-shelter he had decided to take no more risks. Alarming symptoms had not been wanting to indicate the return of a malady from which he never expected to suffer again. The grand affair with the Lady Hortense had been a dignified, chronic ailment which he had learned to endure with a becoming air of pensive resignation. The present attack threatened to be of a much more disturbing character. It was acute; it responded to no treatment, mental, moral, or physical. It was like toothache or mumps or chicken-pox, an ignoble, complaint of which one is ashamed, but before which one is helpless.
It was only at table that he found it impossible to maintain toward Bobby that attitude of indifference which he had prescribed for himself. With the arrival of the new passengers at Honolulu the places had been slightly changed, and now that he found himself seated between Bobby and Andy Black, the temptation to turn his chair slightly toward the former, thus presenting an insolent and forbidding back to Andy, was more than he could resist. Moreover, it afforded him unlimited satisfaction to know that by the glance of his eye or a whispered half-phrase he could instantly center all her sparkling attention upon himself.
The captain viewed these elusive tête-à-têtes with growing disfavor. One morning when he was alone at breakfast with Mrs. Weston he unburdened his mind after his own peculiar fashion.
"A seaman has to cultivate three things, my lady, a Nelson eye, a Nelson ear, and a Nelson nose. I've got 'em all."
Mrs. Weston smiled with, flattering expectancy.
"I don't claim to know what's going on in the rest of the world," he continued significantly, "but you can back your Uncle Ik to know everything that's happening on board this wagon."
"What's happening now? Do tell me," said Mrs. Weston, leaning forward and almost upsetting the salt in her eagerness.
"An Englishman, a poisonously funny Englishman, is running out of his course. He'll hit a reef before long that will knock a hole in his hull."
"Oh, you mean the Honorable Percival?"
"I do. And if he's like the majority of those titled Johnnies, he's so crooked he can hide behind a corkscrew."
"O Captain, that's absurd! Why, he is one of the most absolutely irreproachable and unapproachable young aristocrats I ever saw."
"That's all right. I don't tie up to the British aristocracy, nor any other foreign nobility. Besides, what headway will I make by steering that girl of mine off one shoal to land her on another?"
"Was the Wyoming affair quite out of the question?"
"Oh, Hal Ford is a good-enough chap, but he's a perfect kid. They are both too young to know what they want. Besides, I am not going to have her drop anchor on a ranch for the rest of her days. I'll send her up to 'Frisco to school first. That's what the row was about before she left home. The little minx defied me, so I picked her up and brought her with me out to Hong-Kong."
"Poor child! She probably sees now that you were quite right."
"Maybe she does and maybe she doesn't. She's a wily little scamp all right. I discovered that the second day out. I'd forbidden her to write any letters to the ranch, so she was keeping a log-book which she was going to mail at every port."
"And were you hard-hearted enough to confiscate it?"
"I was. At least I ordered her to give it to me on the spot, and she said she'd chuck it overboard first."
"And did she!"
"She did," said the captain, with a grim chuckle.
"You don't understand that girl," said Mrs. Weston. "I'm quite sure she'd be amenable if she were handled right. However, she doesn't seem to be breaking her heart. Between Andy and the Honorable she's finding consolation."
"Most women do," said the captain, with one of those flashes of bitterness that sent all the good humor scurrying out of his face.
"Of course, she's just playing with Andy," Mrs. Weston hurried on, fearful of the memories she had stirred; "but Mr. Hascombe is different. He is so good-looking and so polished, almost any girl would have her head turned a bit by his attentions."
"You don't mean to say that you think Bobby--"
"I can't quite make out. She doesn't seem to see much of him on deck, but at the table she hasn't eyes or ears for any one else. You watch her."
"Trust my Nelson eye!" said the captain.
When Antipodal Day arrived, every one felt called upon to celebrate it. The guileless tried to see the imaginary line of the meridian which the sophisticated pointed out to them on the water; the cream-peppermint lady went so far as to say she felt the jar as the steamer passed over it. Conjectures, witty, mathematical, or inane, were made as to the identity of to-day, if yesterday was Friday and to-morrow going to be Saturday.
During the morning Percival wandered disconsolately from one part of the ship to another. Despite the fact that he was quite determined to keep away from Bobby, he chafed under her seeming indifference. After that intimate hour together in the wind-shelter it was strange that she could be so oblivious of his presence. It was distasteful to him to have to signal the train of her attention. To be sure, a very little signal served,--a word, a look, a thoughtful gesture,--but he preferred a homage that required no prompting. Moreover, she was guilty of "smiling on all she looked upon," and her acceptance of Andy Black into the ever-widening circle of her admirers offended him deeply.
The day dragged interminably. By five o'clock in the afternoon a tango-tea was in progress, and it seemed to Percival that everybody on board was dancing except the missionaries and himself. Even they were taking part as spectators, having secured their places half an hour before the appointed time in order not to miss a moment of the shocking exhibition.
Percival went to the upper deck and sought the most secluded corner he could find, but even there he was haunted by the soul-disturbing music. Dancing was one of his accomplishments, and he had trod stately measures through half a dozen London seasons, the admiration and the despair of more than one aspiring mama. He looked with great disapproval upon these new and boisterous American dances, he wondered if they were as difficult as they looked. Seeing nobody about, he rose and tentatively tried a few steps behind the shelter of a life-boat. He found it interesting, and was getting quite pleased over his cleverness in catching the syncopated time, when he spied an impertinent sailor grinning at him from the rigging. Instantly his legs became rigid, and he affected an interest in the horizon intended to convince the sailor that he had been the victim of an optical illusion. Of course it was quite beneath his dignity to take part in these rollicking dances, especially in such a public place as on shipboard. He realized that fully; yet he thought of Bobby and sighed. There were actually times in his life when he almost wished he had been born in the middle class.
Then he drew himself up sharply. If there was one thing incumbent upon the second son of the late Lord Westenhanger, it was that he maintain his position. Though grievously disappointed in his failure to capture the incomparable Lady Hortense, he must don his armor and ride forth again to find another lady, differing in kind, perhaps, but not in degree. In his scheme of things wild young daughters of American sea-captains had no place whatever.
Yet even as he made this assertion he found himself moving toward the companionway and down to the deck below.
"Will you sit out the next dance with me?" he heard himself murmuring to Bobby over her partner's shoulder.
"You bet I will," said Bobby with a smile that made him forget the awfulness of her language.
Ten minutes later they were leaning over the rail on the deserted boat-deck, the wind full in their faces, watching the prow of the steamer gently rise and fall as she sailed straight into the golden heart of the sun. Up from the horizon spread wave after wave; of perilous color, emerald melting into azure, crimson dying into rose. There was just enough breeze to put a tiny feather on the windward slope of the waves, and every white crest caught the glory.
"This is better than all the tangoing in the world," cried Bobby. "Have you been up here all afternoon?"
"I have. You see, all those people below get rather on one's nerves."
"Do I?" she challenged him instantly.
"Not on one's nerves exactly," he said, thrillingly aware that her arm was touching his on the railing and that the dangerous pink light was playing over her face; "but I must say you do get on one's--one's mind!"
She laughed gaily.
"Well, that's next to having nothing on your mind. Say, you wouldn't think I had the blues, would you?"
"Can't say I should."
"Well, I have. I've been so homesick all day that I could go round the corner and cry if you--if you hadn't said I mustn't."
"What are you homesick for?"
"Oh, for the old ranch and the ponies and my dogs and--and lots of things. See the way the wind flecks the water over there? Well, that's just the way it does the grasslands back home."
"But it's such a parched, barren sort of a place, Wyoming."
"It is not. You ought to see it in the early spring, when everything is vivid green, and the cactus is in bloom--the red-flowered kind that looks so pretty against the sides of the gray buttes. Why, you can gallop for miles with your horse's hoofs sinking into beds of prairie roses!"
"But it's virtually green in England all the year round. I'd like to show you a well-run English estate. Rather a pretty sight. Hascombe Hall's a fairly decent example. Some hundreds of acres, don't you know."
"Some hundreds!" repeated Bobby, scornfully. "Our ranch covers two hundred thousand acres, and it takes Pa Joe four days' hard riding to get over it!"
"Oh, I say, most extraordinary! But if I were you, I wouldn't think about home affairs," said Percival, to whom her background in Wyoming was of no consequence. He liked to think of her as having begun to live when she met him, and as gracefully ceasing to exist when they parted.
"All right," said Bobby, resignedly. "I've kept bottled up this long; I suppose I can manage the rest of the time. What's that book you've been reading?"
"Is it a love-story?"
"It is poetry," he said. "I shouldn't mind reading you a bit, if you like."
She did like. She evidently liked tremendously. She listened as an inquisitive bird might listen to a strange wood note, with her head on one side and her bright eyes intent upon his face.
When Percival's perfectly modulated voice ceased, she sighed:
"I didn't understand a word of it," she said, "but I could listen to you read forever. It makes me think of the wind in the trees, and all the lovely things that ever happened to me."
"But don't you like the poem?"
"I like the way your mouth looks when you read it. Your chin's nice, too, isn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Percival, with an unsuccessful effort at indifference; "it's the Hascombe chin. Been in the family for generations."
"Think of having a chin as old as that! Perhaps that's what makes you so solemn."
"Am I solemn?"
"Awfully. Elise Weston says she believes you have been crossed in love."
The hollow chambers of Percival's heart reverberated with alarming echoes. He shot a suspicious glance at Bobby, but her innocent gaze reassured him.
"I am afraid your friend Miss Weston is romantic," he said stiffly. "Am I keeping you too long from the dance?"
"Oh, no," said Bobby, comfortably. "I've got the next with Andy Black. He'll never think to look up here. But are you quite sure I'm not getting on your nerves?"
"I am quite sure you are a most awfully charming girl," Percival exclaimed with sudden warmth. "As a matter of fact, I--I like you tremendously."
"That's nice," said Bobby, "because, you see, I like you!"
There was no reason why her avowal should have been regarded as more serious than his own. But he took alarm instantly.
"You won't mind my telling you a few things for your own good, will you?" he asked, taking refuge in the safe rôle of mentor.
"Not a bit," said Bobby; "fire away."
She listened for five minutes to his dissertation on the impropriety of young ladies playing poker in the smoking-room, then she became restive.
"Isn't it funny," she said by way of changing the subject, "that yesterday was Friday, and to-morrow is going to be Saturday, and to-day isn't anything?"
"But it is something. It's a day I shall remember."
Percival was drifting again, and he knew it, but there was that in the bewitching face upturned to his that demoralized him.
"No," said Bobby, "it's the day that never was. We just picked it up out of the sea, and we are going to drop it back again. Whatever happens to-day doesn't count."
"Because by to-morrow, you see, to-day never will have been."
"Deuced clever idea that, I call it. Never thought of it. Suppose we celebrate by way of doing something that we wouldn't do if it counted."
Bobby clapped her hands. "What shall it be?"
"Well, suppose for the rest of the day you consider me the person you quite like best in the world."
She considered it.
"All right. I don't mind for the rest of the day. And you promise to forget all those girls over in England, and pretend that I am the nicest girl you know?"
"I promise," said Percival.
When the second gong for dinner sounded, the two white-clad figures were still leaning on the railing in the secluded angle made by two life-boats. The color had gone from the sky, but every moment the purpling waters were growing more vivid, more intense, more thrillingly alive to the mystery of the coming night. The Honorable Percival's cap was on Bobby's head, and his coat was about her shoulders. As to himself, he seemed strangely indifferent to the tumbled state of his wind-blown hair and the shocking informality of his shirt-sleeves. It was quite evident that for the time being, at least, he had thrown discretion to the winds, and was sailing away from his memories at the rate of sixteen knots an hour.
That night at dinner the captain followed Mrs. Weston's advice and took soundings. Nothing was lost upon him, from Bobby's late arrival in a somewhat sophisticated white evening gown that she had hitherto scorned, to the new and becoming way in which her hair was arranged. It did not require a Nelson eye to discover a suppressed excitement under her high spirits or to detect the side-play that was taking place between her and the apparently stolid Englishman at her right.
Captain Boynton looked at Mrs. Weston and raised one eyebrow; she nodded comprehendingly. Later in the evening, when he dropped into a steamer-chair beside her, he asked if she had seen Bobby.
"Not since dinner. All the young people have been asking for her. Did you look in the writing-room ?"
"I've looked everywhere except in the coal-bunkers," said the captain, gruffly. "Talk to me about responsibility. I'd rather run a schooner up the Hoogli than to steer that girl of mine."
"You've wakened to your duty rather late, haven't you!" asked Mrs. Weston. "I suppose it's the Englishman who is making you anxious?"
The captain dropped his voice.
"Did you see the way she looked at him at dinner? By George! it was enough to melt the leg off an iron pot!"
"It's been coming for a week," said Mrs. Weston, wisely. "If you really oppose it, there is no time to be lost."
"Oppose it? Of course I oppose it. What's to be done?"
"The situation requires delicate handling. Would you like me to try and help you out--share the responsibility of chaperoning her, I mean?"
"Permanently?" asked the captain, shooting a quizzical glance at her from under his heavy brows.
"You wretch!" said Mrs. Weston, flushing. "Just to Hong-Kong, I mean."
That night about ten o'clock the captain, who happened to be crossing the steerage deck, came quite unexpectedly upon Percival and Bobby groping their way through the dark.
"Roberta," he called sternly, "What are you doing out here?"
"Oh," cried Bobby, breathlessly, feeling her way around the hatch, "we've been out on the prow for hours, and it was simply gorgeous. All inky black except the phosphorescence, miles and miles of it! And some dolphins, all covered with silver, kept racing with us and leaping clear out of the water, like wriggly bits of fire. And the stars--why, Mr. Hascombe's been telling me the most fascinating things I ever heard about stars. We've had a perfectly wonderful time, haven't we, Mr. Hascombe?"
"Topping!" said the Honorable Percival.
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